Cratloe’s own school of excellence

Jody O’Connor was the first speaker on stage at last January’s GAA Games Development Conference.

Cratloe’s own school of excellence

The opening slide of O’Connor’s presentation featured a picture taken at St John’s National School, Cratloe, in 1995. In the weeks after Clare’s All-Ireland final win — the county’s first in 81 years — selector and Cratloe native Tony Considine brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup to the local school, joined by panellists Davy Fitzgerald, Michael O’Halloran and Seanie McMahon.

O’Connor, the now retired principal from St John’s, employed the picture to illustrate how “impressionable” young children are.

“In teaching, we talk about the three Rs — reading, writing, and arithmetic. In Gaelic games, the three Rs relate to recruiting children, retaining them and fostering relationships,” he explained.

“That September we had a particularly big junior infant class. Children are very impressionable at that age and we knew the importance of introducing them to role models. You might think at four and five years of age the likes of Seanie McMahon would have no influence on them, but children are far more impressionable than you think.

“Little did we think that 18 years later three of these lads — Conor McGrath, Liam Markham and Conor Ryan — would be bringing Liam MacCarthy back.”

Conor Ryan remembers the occasion like it was yesterday: “I don’t remember my first day in primary school, but I do remember that day. I remember being outside and arguing with the lads as to who would hold the flag at the back. It was brilliant to see the cup.”

At the time, Cratloe were struggling to retain senior status, straining to remain at the top table. The club had never contested the county final, never mind won it.

McGrath, Markham and Ryan, along with the Collins brothers, Podge and Sean, Martin ‘Ogie’ Murphy and several more first took a hurl and sliotar under the stewardship of Jody.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, the principal would take his students to the Hollow to hone their skills — the same place where Clare stalwart Jackie O’Gorman learned to hold and swing the hurley many decades earlier. It would become the playground of their youth.

“Those youngsters were mad to learn,” recalled O’Connor. “I wanted to drive it on because I was from a hurling parish in Limerick called Kileedy.”

O’Connor wasn’t the only “outsider” to influence the club’s fortunes.

Located six miles from Limerick City, the village underwent a population boom in the early 1990s. Among those to emigrate from the Treaty County were the parents of Cathal McInerney and Liam Markham. Podge’s father Colm, a native of Kilmihil and his wife Kay, formerly of West Cork, set up camp in Cratloe, as did Phil Ryan, a native of Lattin-Cullen, and his wife Aileen, born and reared in Blackrock.

Arguably the most influential arrival was that of Joe McGrath, Conor’s father. A native of Toomevara, Joe, much like his son, immersed himself in the club.

“I would honestly say if Joe McGrath hadn’t got involved with the club, we wouldn’t have one lad on the Clare panel,” said O’Gorman of the six Cratloe hurlers who picked up All-Ireland medals in September 2013.

“He coached them from the beginning. He, along with Jody O’Connor, would have coached them from the time they first tied their laces.”

Tomorrow, McGrath leads Cratloe into a fourth county final in six years, a far cry from when O’Gorman was donning the blue and white.

Despite intermediate glory in the autumn of 1970, O’Gorman and Cratloe’s time on the front bench of Clare hurling was short-lived. Indeed, the corner-back’s lasting experience at senior club level arrived not in the colours of Cratloe, but in that of rivals Clonlara, and final opponents Crusheen.

“They were senior clubs in the 1970s while we were only intermediate and certain years they were allowed pick the strongest players from the neighbouring junior and intermediate clubs. I got picked by Crusheen one year and Clonlara another. Here in Cratloe, success was few and far between.”

The arrival of McGrath, the involvement of Mike Deegan and the nurturing hand of O’Connor would see their graph rise sharply.

“Jody O’Connor put in a lot of work and that work is still ongoing in the school today,” said McGrath.

“Anybody with a hurling background is co-opted into looking after teams and I was no different when getting involved with the underage set-up in the club. There isn’t long queues for looking after any team in any of these rural parishes. We are not the biggest club in the world. We make the best of the resources we have and we try and get them young in both codes. We have had reasonable success at underage, but obviously the main objective is to get these lads to perform on the senior stage.

“This is my third year involved as senior manager. I would have been a selector under Mike Deegan when we won our first county title in 2009 and continued to work under Mike until he moved on to join the Clare set-up when Davy was appointed manager. In 2012 we lost the final to Newmarket and then last year we didn’t get out of the group. If you stick your neck out long enough and bang on the door long enough, someone will eventually let you in.”

Indeed, McGrath has continued the tradition of exhausting the expertise of “outsiders” now resident in the parish.

“In the backroom we have Derek Crowley, Ronan O’Reilly, Alan Neville and Brian Lohan. Brian has been living in Cratloe for the last seven or eight years so we consider him a native at this stage. Alan, originally from Clarecastle, was on the Clare panel in 1995.

“Brian is a huge bonus to have, with the experience he brings. With his warrior reputation, he is a hugely respected figure in our camp. There is no one better then than Alan with regard to his technical expertise.”

Win or lose tomorrow, 12 members of the hurling panel will return inside the whitewash on Sunday week as the club contests the senior football decider. The double has never before been achieved in Clare.

“Basically it is the same team,” continues McGrath.

“It hasn’t been a problem. They have been doubling up coming up the ranks at minor, U21. The two managements get on very well. The boys love both codes. They are reasonably good at both codes. We have no problem in accommodating both codes in this parish.

“It does build momentum. Over the last 11 weeks we have been out in nine or 10 of them playing championship across the two codes. We won all those matches. Momentum is hugely important and while the bodies might be sore they are on the crest of a wave. Long may it continue.”

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