On the night Cork beat Clare in the 1999 Munster final, Johnny Callanan, the former Clarecastle and Clare hurler, and a great personal friend, told me a funny story. A few pints had helped to siphon some of the pain from the defeat but Cal wanted to try put more perspective on the day’s events.
One Monday afternoon in the early 1980s, the day after Cork had beaten Limerick in the championship, Callanan got a call from his brother-in-law, Seán O’Donovan. An uncle of the former Clare hurler Domhnaill, Seán rang Callanan and asked him to meet Seán and a crew of other Limerick hurlers for lunch.
Seán, who won four senior championships with Kilmallock, was seeking the cure with a handful of team-mates after a painful day at the office. Callanan and Seán were raking through the embers of Limerick’s defeat to Cork when Ger Clohessy, the Young Munster rugby player who many still regard as the original ‘Claw’, joined the conversation.
Callanan often said that Ger made his younger brother, Peter, look like a scrum-half and he spoke like he played — with no holds barred. ‘If ye don’t mind me saying so lads,’ said Ger. ‘Ye hates each other (Clare and Limerick). Ye hates Tipp. But ye don’t hates them boys (Cork) enough.’
Callanan lost a few painful Munster finals to Cork during his career. He always carried that sickening taste of Munster final defeat but that comment from ‘The original Claw’ reminded Callanan why the taste always remained so bitter.
“Cork codded us for 60 years,’ Callanan said to me that night. “Telling us all, ‘Ye’re great lads, we’d love to see ye win a Munster title’. We were thinking, ‘Cork are fierce nice lads. But why wouldn’t they be nice to us when they kept batin’ us?’”
Cal was right. We were too nice to Cork that day in 1999. We’d had the luxury — which Callanan and his crew didn’t have – of having beaten Cork four times in the previous six years. That definitely made us more complacent than we should have been but we still never had that same fire for Cork which we routinely reserved for Limerick and Tipperary.
When Dónal Óg Cusack started telling us in the parade how many more All-Irelands Cork had than Clare, I only started laughing at him. Yet if it was Brendan Cummins or Joe Quaid mouthing off, I’d have probably gone over and told them a few home truths about the previous few years.
We had already lost the run of ourselves beforehand. Pat O’Donnell, the team sponsor, presented us with trinkets on the Friday night before the game, for whatever reason I still can’t recall. Pat was probably thinking about the three-in-a-row like the rest of us.
Beating Cork, which that team hadn’t managed in a Munster final, should have been seen as the ideal opportunity to crown that glorious period in the province but, instead of trying to squash the mushrooms into the ground, we let them sprout up through the ground that afternoon in Thurles and grow into All-Ireland winners that September. I’ve no doubt in my mind that if Limerick or Tipp were coming with a young team, we’d have had the spite to trample those mushrooms back into the dirt.
There were traces of that mentality all over Clare’s performance in last year’s Munster final too. To make it worse, the boys had much less of an excuse than we had in 1999, because Cork had beaten Clare in 2014 and 2015. Clare lacked aggression. They tactically bowed the knee to Cork. They were just too nice.
Aside from 2013 (when they also beat us in Munster that season), that lack of ruthlessness against Cork has been a trend now for two decades; 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017. The only time Clare really showed any cut-throat edge was during the infamous ‘Semplegate’ incident in 2007. And that was before the game.
Jesus wept. That was my first night on The Sunday Game. There was me, having managed Clare for the three previous years, sweat steaming out through my pores, and facing Pat Spillane — who was then the presenter — in his south Kerry brogue: ‘Sure you can’t condone that stuff Anthony.’ Oh, for Dessie Cahill that night, and the bit of Clare breeding in him to cut me some kind of slack.
Clare have never brought enough of manic aggression to Cork. I think that lack of fight shown in last year’s final was what fuelled Gerry O’Connor’s
comments before they played Tipp in the All-Ireland quarter-final when he said Clare were going to war. This Clare team isn’t really built for war but they can still set a tone of legitimate and on-the-edge aggression that you need to bring to the fight against Cork.
Relentless workrate is a standard requirement at this level but that must be married with supreme focus and discipline. When Tony Kelly scored his goal in May, Cork went ahead again from the puckout after Clare conceded a sloppy free.
Patrick Horgan ambles out, with his body language screaming: ‘Thanks lads. I’ll nail this now.’ When I was Clare manager, we always had this theory that, if we scored a goal, winning the resultant opposition puckout was deemed almost bigger than the actual goal. I’ll never forget Seanie McMahon doing that against Wexford in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Alan Markham got the goal, Seanie won the puckout and slotted the point. Game over.
sat down and watched last year’s Munster final, and the game in May, earlier in the week. And there was no doubt that Cork’s forwards worked harder than Clare’s forwards in both games.
Clare didn’t get the match-ups right on those days either, which is something they managed successfully against Limerick, especially with the discipline of our overall defensive balance.
Cork are playing a system of four banks of three with Horgan staying inside, before rotating the other inside man with Seamus Harnedy, Shane Kingston or Conor Lehane. Daniel Kearney goes straight out and plays as a third midfielder, and is thriving in that role. With that set-up, I would bring Podge Collins out on top of Kearney.
John Conlon did slot five points from play off Christopher Joyce in May but Peter Duggan and TK can be that hitman in the half-forward line and Clare need Conlon and Shane O’Donnell to hold inside and to get the ball into them as quickly as possible.
Clare need to get a grip on Darragh Fitzgibbon, who ran the match in May with Mark Coleman and Mark Ellis. I’d actually put David Reidy on Coleman and make Coleman worry about Reidy as opposed to any strategy aimed at trying to halt Coleman’s link-play and attacking threat.
This Munster final is a desperately hard game to call. There was nothing between these teams when they met in May but Clare will need to be defensively better, and stronger in the air than they were on that afternoon. Unlike their last three championship meetings, Clare will also need to want it more. And after 20 years waiting for a Munster title, I think they will.
I’m delighted to be working for The Sunday Game but it can be tough going at times on the heart-strings. I’m in Montrose all day Sunday while Ger Loughnane is in Croke Park. That’s just the way the dice sometimes rolls but having the Munster and Leinster finals on the same day is one of the real drawbacks of this new system.
Nobody is in any doubt as to how pumped up Kilkenny will be tomorrow but I’m nearly more interested in discovering the mindset and attitude Galway bring to the battle. Galway have been listening to this talk that they are the new kings, that they’ve beaten Kilkenny well already, and that they’re capable of dishing out another hiding now. That has the potential to create mental softness but I look at all that stuff the opposite way; Galway have suffered so much at the hands of Kilkenny that every opportunity they get to play them now, is another opportunity for retribution.
I’m expecting a ruthless Galway display. As well as having had a three-week break, they should be fresher coming into this game than any of the other three teams involved tomorrow. Because Galway have been maintaining a cruising speed while every other side has had the foot pressed to the accelerator.
All bets are off with Kilkenny in a Leinster final in Croke Park but I still think Galway are at a different level to everyone else in terms of confidence, physicality, power and scoring potential. I also believe that their defence is the strongest unit left in the championship.
I, like us all, love the shootouts, but as a defender, I also love the shutouts. Galway completely shut down Kilkenny’s attack in May and I just can’t see Kilkenny getting enough scores tomorrow to win the game. I fancy Galway by a few points.
They are better than Kilkenny now. And, to borrow the words of ‘The Original Claw’, Galway ‘hates that crowd’ enough to put them to the sword.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved