KIERAN SHANNON: 20 years ago

It was a different world twenty years ago. Most counties knew their place in the GAA’s hierarchy.

But John Maughan and Clare changed all that. Banner All Star Seamus Clancy reflects on the most influential Championship result in decades - and what it took to get there.

They all still get a text every few weeks from Martin Flynn. He was corner-forward in ’92 but he’s central to keeping the bond intact to this day. Such a lad’s father-in-law just passed away, removal tomorrow night, funeral the day after. Such a one is getting married, don’t forget to drop a line.

It was one a few months ago though, that really struck Seamus Clancy just how much older they’re all getting: Lads, it’s 20 years this year. What are we going to do? Do ye want to go away for a week?

“You’d be saying to yourself, ‘Jesus, is it that long ago now?’ It doesn’t feel 20 years. But it’s 20 years, obviously.”

Clare, ’92. Before there was Loughnane and ’95 there was Clare ’92 and all that went with them. John Maughan and his tan; Marty Morrissey and his milked cows; the Clancy brothers who not only loved their trad music but loved their football as well; Kevin Costner watching their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in an electric Croke Park and there to witness what is still considered the loudest, most emotive roar that ever greeted a team and a people into the famous old arena.

It was a different world back then but it was Maughan and Clare that changed it.

Before their breakthrough every county understood their place in the world. If you were from Connacht you couldn’t even dream of winning an All-Ireland. If you were from Ulster, only the Down boys with their inherent swagger could think of such a thing. If you were from Leinster, well you’d want to be either from Dublin or Meath in football or Kilkenny or Offaly in hurling if you were to have such grand notions. In Munster only Cork and Kerry in football and Cork and Tipp in hurling were at anything. The rest were either also-rans or whipping boys.

When Maughan and his plucky band of footballers shocked Kerry in Limerick to bring Clare its first Munster title in either code in 60 years, it was probably the most influential GAA result for 30 years. Every county challenged its place in the world, no county no longer had an excuse. If the Clare footballers could win, why couldn’t they? Donegal in ’92, Derry ’93, Leitrim ’94; Loughnane’s Clare in ’95; Griffin’s Wexford in ’96; the renewal of the great Mayo quest in ’96 and Galway’s breakthrough in ’98; right up to the Armagh footballers and Waterford hurlers in ’02, Tyrone and Laois in ’03, Westmeath and Fermanagh in ’04, Sligo winning Connacht in ’07, the Wexford footballers reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in 2008. Nothing was impossible after Clare ’92. They were the first of the new romantics.

Before Maughan, there was nothing romantic or sexy about Clare football. They were never subjected to taunts like their countyman Anthony Daly was in hurling and told to just stick to their trad but that was because looking down on them was enough. “Even playing Kerry and Cork underage,” says Clancy, “their whole demeanour was ‘What are you doing here?’ They wouldn’t even think there was a man on them. That wasn’t their fault. That was our fault.”

With Clare football at nothing and work prospects little better, Clancy headed to Australia in the mid-80s. “Like a lot of fellas I became a carpenter on the plane out,” he smiles in that soft, likeable, grounded manner of his. After four years he returned home to marry and build a house.

He wasn’t long back when John Maughan walked into their lives and their dressing room. There were only 13 of them there that November night in Crusheen, coming off losing their opening league game to Waterford. They didn’t know who Maughan was, just a young army man whose playing career had finished through injury at 25, but right away they took to him.

“I can still picture him wearing a Mayo jersey and telling us that he was a Mayo man but as long as he was with us he was a Clare man. Next thing off went the Mayo jersey and underneath he had a Clare jersey. That made a big impact upon us. He was one of us. Sure he used to train with us.”

Even his wife would train with them. Audrey Maughan was quite an athlete herself and there’s a case that only for her Clancy would probably never have won his All Star and Clare their Munster title. “I’d come back from Australia not fit, so me and the running wasn’t the greatest but the one thing I had to do was finish ahead of Audrey. I’d be bursting my arse just to stay ahead of her.”

After their breakthrough everyone for a while would train like them but before no one had trained like them. They’d often run a six-mile course on the beach and through the sand dunes and golf course in Lahinch. They’d sprint time and time again up this lop-sided horse racecourse in Quin. They’d flatten the hill in Shannon, sometimes watched by a curious local resident called Ger Loughnane. And before Mike Mac immortalised the place, they spilled blood, sweat and vomit on the field of Crusheen.

“Once 12 o’clock in the day would come, you’d start thinking about training, going ‘Oh Jesus, tonight’s going to be tough’. You’d eat no dinner because it would be only coming back up. You’d start off with 20 laps. If you went down to a county team now and said, ‘Right, lads, 20 laps to warm up’, they’d tell you, “F*** off, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Even back then you’d have people laughing, ‘Are ye playing Kerry on a beach?’

“But the thing about it was you were mentally tough from it. You didn’t want to be the one that was going to give up. No one gave up, only the lads who pulled off the panel.

“We lost some good footballers. They had to be wondering, what are we doing this for? We’d train at seven in Crusheen, the hurlers would train there from half-seven to half-eight and then we’d come in at quarter-to-nine and all the hot water would be gone. We’d get a few corned beef sandwiches while the hurlers were going into Ennis for a steak. But those of us who kept at it developed this savage friendship. The feeling after having done a session like that in the dressing room afterwards was fantastic.

“We had a sub on the panel called Liam Conneely. He was working in Sligo and he’d still be down in Lahinch at seven o’clock for training. One night he was frothing at the mouth during a savage run. He was actually in a state of delirium. But he had this thing, ‘I’m going to finish this’, and we had this thing, ‘He is going to finish it’, so myself and Joe Joe [Rouine] grabbed him by the hand and pulled him along. Because he was lifting us when you saw what he was ready to go through.”

The craic sustained them too. Tom Morrissey was a garrulous rogue always good for a laugh or a song. It helped that they were winning as well. It started with a couple of wins in Division 4, then a few more on the challenge game circuit. Kerry overpowered them in the last 20 minutes of their 1991 Munster semi-final clash but they would finish that year beating Longford in the All-Ireland B final. After that Maughan was able to secure for them two boxes of bananas from Fyffes to go with their corned beef sandwiches, triggering another hurrah moment for the group.

The following spring they reached the league quarter-final. A Meath team that had contested four of the previous five All-Ireland finals only beat them by two points. On the eve of the 1992 championship the panel were training on the beach in Lahinch when Clancy turned to Maughan and his wife and declared that Clare were going to win the Munster championship. “I’ll never forget it,” Maughan would say years later. “Seamus was the first guy that actually said it and I began to realise that we would win that championship.”

By mid-July, that conviction had become even stronger. Clancy was usually the strong, silent type in the dressing room but come Munster final day he took over the floor to both set and capture the mood.

“I was on Pat Spillane that day. We didn’t get on the best. Before half-time I got a shot under the jaw from him. Now of course I was well entitled to it, but at half-time I wasn’t listening to a word what Maughan was saying, all I was thinking was that when I got back on that field I was going to f***** kill that fella. But sure Pat was moved onto someone else and I ended up getting booked for a hit on Willie Maher instead.

“We owed them after that. All our lives Cork and Kerry were this whip to keep us down. And the day of the [’92] Munster final I said to the lads in the dressing room, ‘Today we’re going to rise up. Today we’re going to make history. Lads, we were put on this earth to win this match for Clare today’.”

It was a profound line but not one he had rehearsed. “It just came out. That’s just how it felt, that we were bred for this one day. We all looked at each other and we knew we couldn’t be beaten. We just knew from the games we had won, the way we had trained so hard, from a sub like Liam Conneely driving down from Sligo and fellas dragging him over the line by the hand.”

Though it would be the day of days, Clancy’s actually started shakily. Karl O’Dwyer won the first couple of balls played into their corner and when Clancy caught a Clare sub warming up on the line, he got it into his head that it was for him. The next ball that came in was a high one. Clancy took a chance, came out in front and got his fingertips to it. He would go on to serve up a performance that would win him man of the match, an All Star and his Munster medal.

There were many key little cameos. The one time Maurice Fitzgerald escaped Kieran O’Neill he was immediately closed down by a posse of Clare men — Noel Roche, Horse Moloney, Joe Joe, Gerry Killeen. “Maurice could do things with a ball we’d never seen before but of course he was cocky, as if, ‘This is only Clare, we can dilly-dally through these’. Before he knew it the lads had put him out over the line. We were nearly pushing him out over the line with our minds.”

When the whistle went it was just chaos, people everywhere and disbelief. Even Clancy found it hard to comprehend. “We fully believed we were going to win,” he smiles, “but then when we won we couldn’t believe it.”

Even going back in the car to Ennis with his brother Colm and their father Donal, a team selector, the mood was sedate. “He just said, ‘Well done, lads, fair play to ye’, as if we were coming back from an underage or league game with Corofin.”

Inside though there was this lovely sense of satisfaction while that spin back in his father’s car would prove to be the calm before the storm. Clare went mad that week, starting at the West County Hotel which they barely squeezed into. The following Wednesday night in training, there were hundreds of well-wishers watching on. “It was different now. It was more than football. There was more pressure. We had won mostly for ourselves and now we were trying to deliver for Clare.”

It was a glorious month though, the lead into the Dublin game. Clancy never felt fitter in his life. And that day of the All-Ireland semi-final itself was magical. “Even going in on the bus with the motorbike escort,” he smiles, “sure we thought we were great. It was like the first night the bananas arrived at training.”

They would ask hard questions of Dublin that day, but eventually go down in a belter of a game, 3-14 to 2-12. “There was pure dejection afterwards but we vowed that day we’d do everything in our power to get back there again. We wanted to build on the experience of that day but it wasn’t to be.”

They actually did get back there the following spring, reaching a league semi-final, but they lost to Donegal and then a month later Cork ended their championship the same day it began. Two years later another defeat to Cork ended Clancy’s championship career. “That was when the real disappointment of losing in Croker in ’92 kicked in. The goal of getting back was gone, the dream was gone.”

Clare would battle on bravely for the rest of that decade, staying in the top two divisions, but there was no back door in those days and, when it did arrive, Clare as a respectable force were gone.

The bond the ’92 men share lives on. A few years ago they were all at the funeral of Dan O’Halloran, their old selfless physio. Four carloads of them went up to Maughan’s father’s funeral. It annoys Clancy intensely when he hears Mayo people bemoaning the All-Irelands he “blew”, especially when it was Maughan who got them back thinking of winning All-Irelands.

That loyalty is mutual. Clancy has three children, the youngest of which has cystic fibrosis. Clancy and his wife are both heavily involved in the TLC for CF campaign which has raised €4 million to build a hospital service in Limerick. Every September they hold the north Clare charity cycle. Last year Maughan got the text, showed up on his bike, cycled the 120km and then headed home to Mayo. Over 20 years on from the day he unveiled that second jersey in a dressing room in Crusheen, a part of him remains a Clareman.

Clancy is another vibrant, fresh man for one only a couple of years away from 50. He cycles, coaches Clare development squads, while it was only a couple of years ago that he finished playing. He was training the club, they were down a few numbers so he filled in as a midfielder. They ended up winning the county intermediate title and reaching the Munster final. Their opponents were Ardfert, from Kerry. The venue? Where else? The Gaelic Grounds, Limerick.

“I was 43 but that day I felt like a lad at 19. I remember thinking in the dressing room, ‘This is my place! This is my pitch!’”

A late goal would deny him. It wouldn’t be like ’92 again after all. But then, there’ll never be anything like ’92 again.

That was the day they were born for.


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