Hopes of senior success have soared since Clare swept to a historic All-Ireland U21 title but despite a competitive display in the Munster semi-final against Waterford, Clare’s summer ended in abrupt fashion when they were emphatically despatched by Dublin in the qualifiers. Yet Conlon remains upbeat and stresses that the outlook is positive. Tonight they contest their third successive Bord Gáis Energy Munster U21HC final and Clare have already claimed Munster minor hurling honours this summer. But Conlon believes it is imperative that these burgeoning talents are given time to make their mark on the senior stage.
“People are expecting a lot of things straight away from this U21 set up. We have to build and we’re not going to do that overnight. You’re not going to get 21 and 22-year-olds and expect them to run out at Croke Park and be superstars straight away. It’s a big step up. I didn’t think the final score reflected the Dublin game. Everything went right for Dublin — they were hitting points over from 30 yards off the ground. You get those days. I think we need to just relax and go with the flow, and hopefully in a few years we’ll be back up there again.”
Tonight Conlon’s focus shifts back to his own grade as Clare travel to Semple Stadium to face Tipperary in the hope of replicating the heroics that swept them to success last year. There are other memories to drive on Conlon as well. Two years ago he part of a Clare team devastated when they lost by a point to Tipperary in a blaze of controversy in an U21 decider.
“It was one of the lowest things in Clare’s history and one of the lowest moments of my career”, recalls Conlon. “On Wednesday night, we will be wanting to make up for it and where better than Thurles to do that. It was never really talked about last year, we just went in expecting to do well. It was nice that it was Waterford we were playing as they wouldn’t be seen as a big traditional power. When Clare teams go out there are three teams you fear in Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork, and nearly seeing their flipping jerseys makes you afraid of them.”
Conlon reveals that there is a growing level of confidence in the Clare camp based on last year’s U21 triumph and the Fitzgibbon Cup medals that four of the team picked up in March with NUI Galway.
“We have 10 of the All-Ireland team that finished, subs included and there’s a good buzz there. Many Clare teams go down hoping to win — we’re expecting to win, which is a great thing. That’s the confidence instilled in the team from the management. The Fitzgibbon was a great winning experience for a few of us as well. It’s always easy to win the first one but to win the second is the hardest.”
Clare have made two personnel changes for the game with Liam Markham coming into the team at right half-back and Eoin Hayes introduced at left half-forward. This results in a new midfield pairing being formed as Sean Collins links up with Nicky O Connell, with Shane Golden and Kevin Heagney being the two players to drop to the bench. The stars of Clare’s successful U21 team last year like Cathal Chaplin, Caimin Morey, O’Connell, Conlon and Darach Honan will be central to their hopes tonight. But Tipperary could have the edge with key senior players like Padraig Maher, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher and Michael Cahill.
CLARE U21: D Tuohy; D Nash, C Chaplin, J Gunning; L Markham, C Morey, P O’Connor; N O’Connell, S Collins; P Vaughan, J Conlon, E Hayes; C McGrath, D Honan, F Kennedy.
TIPPERARY U21: J Logue; K O’Gorman, J Coghlan, M Cahill; J Barry, Padraig Maher, B Maher; S Hennessy, N McGrath; S Carey, Patrick Maher, B O’Meara; M Heffernan, P Murphy, J O’Dwyer.