Before we glory once more in the celebration of hurling that’s the new championship format, pause and spare a thought for a moment if you will for the century of players who were deprived this simple pleasure.
Noaise Jordan is a mentor and idol to Brendan Bugler, being a fellow Whitegate man who was still so highly regarded within his own county during the Loughnane years that he made corner-forward on the Clare team of the last millennium.
Yet a couple of generations and counties removed from when and where the impish Jordan played and who remembers him, not least because in the ‘60s Clare’s championship rarely extended to a second game?
Even Bugler’s old coach Davy Fitzgerald played no more than two championship games his first three seasons as Clare goalkeeper.
In 2001, Jamesie O’Connor, now a fellow member of the teaching staff in St Flannan’s College with Bugler, dragged himself off the field below in a sun-scorched Páirc Uí Chaoimh, trying to comprehend that at a time when he was probably playing the best hurling of his career on possibly the second-best team in the country, his and their summer was already over after just one game on account of losing by just one point to Tipp.
To think of all that talent, and all those matches there could have been but weren’t, because tradition and fear reigned.
Bugler himself was fortunate enough to play into July in each of his 11 years that he represented the county at senior, yet in only one of those campaigns did Clare play more than two games in Munster.
Now, the first year he’s no longer playing and his team-mates will be playing a fourth Munster championship game in a month.
And while he’s happy with his decision to step away and happy for his team-mates that they get to experience this provincial rollercoaster, part of him is envious too.
I would have loved to have played under this format. As a player, what you want is games week in, week out.
“I was saying it to a couple of the minor lads in Flannan’s after the [first-round] game against Cork, ‘You don’t realise how lucky you are.’
“I mean, to be guaranteed four championship games in a month, all before a senior game, in front of a big crowd, it must be dreamland.
“When I was a minor, you trained just as hard for six or seven months and then you’d be below in Kilmallock or some place on a Wednesday night with maybe 1500 people there, max, and if you lost, you were gone for the year. I think it [the new format] is brilliant for them [minors]. It’s going to fast-track players better than years gone by.”
It is other obvious and outstanding feature is that some of those extra games are at home. Again, that’s a privilege that bypassed Bugler: Any home game he played in was reserved for the league or the qualifiers, never the Munster championship.
He did though get a flavour of that Cusack Park experience to appreciate and anticipate what a day like tomorrow in Ennis will be like.
“Two of my favourite days ever were when Loughnane came back in 2007 with Galway and when Dalo [Anthony Daly] came back in 2012 [with Dublin]. When there’s a big crowd in there, it’s like a cauldron, the supporters are so close to the field.
Going into the second half that day against Dublin, we were five points down and then we had a man sent off but I’ll never forget the way the place erupted when we started clawing back, point by point. When the Clare crowd gets behind you, it’s phenomenal.
For the most part though he is content to be up in the stand amongst them. When he announced his retirement last winter, he had a series of projects to throw himself into. Little Cathal who his wife Josephine gave birth to nine months ago.
The house he’s building himself on his parents’ farm in the fabulous setting that’s Mountshannon which he hopes to have completed sometime in August.
Now this summer he’s co-commenting on the county’s minor games for Clare FM. As challenging as such a new role can be, it’s a lot stressful than the old one.
“When I made the decision I switched a button: I’ve been a player, now I’m a supporter. For a minute or two after the game the last day [in Thurles] I missed the buzz and the feeling you’d get after a win like that, but I don’t miss the nervous tension you’d have the day of a game. Your stomach in knots, the whole build-up, I had enough of that. I’m enjoying now getting up and having the breakfast in the mornings and going to the games with a few lads.”
Playing with the club has particularly helped with that transitioning process from county man to a former one.
Shortly after his retirement he wrote a particularly honest blog, stating one of his biggest goals was to reconnect with the lads back home.
Between playing with the county and living in Josephine’s home parish of Sixmilebridge, he mightn’t see them for half a year; then, within a month of being back with them they could be beaten and that would be that for another season. Younger members of the panels were virtual strangers; older team-mates who he would have classed as good friends had become mere acquaintances.
Such a state of affairs would have jarred with Bugler. Back when his brother John was working in Dublin, he’d often work a shift on a Saturday night and yet still report to the field in Whitegate for Sunday morning training. John’s 42 now, a full 10 years older than Brendan himself, and still playing senior for the club.
When people ask Bugler why he never transferred from Clare’s most remote outpost, especially when he was living in the heart of hurling country in Josephine’s hometown of Sixmilebridge, he says it never crossed his mind; playing some football for Colm Collins with the Cratloe lads he’d befriended on the county panel was the only other club he could line out for.
This year, he’s glad to report, he’s training with the lads most nights and reintegrated well with the group. Also, contrary to the popular perception there can be of the plight of the club player, he likes how the new format and schedule is set up, at least in Clare anyway.
“I think the fact we had no championship game in April [or May, like in previous seasons] suited everybody — the county and the clubs.
“You look at Tipp — they flogged themselves in April, whereas here in Clare, the lads were still able to tip over playing the odd Clare Cup [league] game with the club while building up with the county for the championship.
And it was massive for the club player. If we had to have played championship in April, we’d probably have been back training in December, January, and then have a big break afterwards and try and peak again.
“This year, we were able to come back in late February, and start playing Clare Cup the St Patrick’s weekend. There’s a clear schedule. You know what dates your Clare Cup games are on — you’ve a game almost every second week from the end of March to the end of June. The championship is down to start in August which will only change if Clare reach an All-Ireland final.”
In that same blog Bugler also expressed some of his concerns and his frustrations with being a county player, especially when a ‘one size fits all’ approach can be pervasive. He was a bit disappointed that some people interpreted it as a criticism of Clare set-ups, including the current one, when his point was a wider one.
“I know lads from other counties and from talking to them, they’d also prefer that as they get older there’d be a bit more flexibility to do more things outside the group, whether it’s getting in your gym or video analysis to save energy and time.
“Even Tommy Bowe in that documentary the other night (on RTÉ) spoke about how it’s hard in training to go up against a fella who is 21, 22 when you’re 31, 32. Lads as they get older generally know what they have to do to be right for a big game.
Does it always have to be with the group? I don’t think so. It’s what you do outside the group anyway that is going to make you a real player.
Bugler was always willing to do extras outside the group. The inimitable Naoise Jordan, that same corner-forward on the Clare millennium team, would often take him around the various alleys in Clare that he’s adorned with the targets he’s painted on their walls and the nimble feet that skip around their courts (“Even now, in his 70s,” smiles Bulger, “Naoise’s touch is phenomenal.”)
When Bugler taught woodwork in Callan the year after he won the 2013 All-Ireland, he availed of the mentorship of the local principal, Brother Damien Brennan, the horse whisperer to the All-Stars.
Like Henry Shefflin and Jackie Tyrrell before him, Bugler was coming off back-to-back All-Stars but wanted to get better again, and Brennan, “an extraordinary man”, helped him do that, he feels, from the number-five-specific individual practice workouts he’d put him through to the way he’d counsel his thoughts.
“Any player who can find someone who is nearly like a Mr Miyagi (the fictional karate master in The Karate Kid films),” says Bugler, “can benefit massively.”
Bugler can’t claim to be such a sage himself as he’s only starting out on his own coaching journey, helping out with some of the teams in Flannan’s, but it’s easy to see why Clare FM have already sought out his insights and why he’s likely to be involved in future Clare set-ups in some grade in future years.
He’s a thoughtful, bright individual who, for all his willingness to call on the expertise and advice of others, has a hugely self-reliant streak as well, typified by him having the distinction of being the last hurler to win an All-Star without his side even reaching the All-Ireland quarter-final (Bugler’s feat occurred in 2012; Joe Canning in 2008 and Eoin Kelly in 2004 are the only other players to pull off something similar since the backdoor extended to all beaten provincial contestants back in 2002).
Observing Clare this year, he’s seen how Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor have adapted to life in the hotseat.
“They would have learned an awful lot from last year. There’s a more settled look about the team. Last year there was a rotation system all during the league, including in the goalkeeper position. If you’re a defender, you want to be hearing the same voice behind you rather than a different one every time, just so you build up that understanding and trust.
“I know some people saw it as a negative that the team had so many of the same names lining out but if you look at Tipp, they rotated during the league, probably thinking, ‘We’re going to need all these guys for the championship.’ But they didn’t have a settled look about their team all year and paid the price for that.
“I also think we’re playing a bit more direct and to our strengths this year. Putting John [Conlon] in on the edge of the square has given a new dimension to our game. He was unbelievably disappointed last year to be whipped off after 20 minutes in the [All-Ireland] quarter-final last year, but he went about his business this year to peak for Championship.
“Last year he did an awful lot of work early in the year but come championship he was flat. This year he came back a bit later, changed the way he approached his training and he seems to have a new lease of life.”
If Moloney and O’Connor have impressed Bugler though, so has the Limerick management, including the former Clare duo of Joe O’Connor and Paul Kinnerk that helped Bugler win his All-Ireland in 2013 but are trying to stop his countymen tomorrow.
“You can see Kinnerk’s stamp all over Limerick. When he came into Clare first, I probably didn’t know how to tackle properly. Kinnerk taught me how to tackle properly. Before you might just throw out your arm [with the hurley]. He brought the football tackle into hurling — use your body, holding up your man, staying on goalside, getting into a boxer’s stance.
“We would have done an awful lot on that and you could see by the workrate Limerick showed in Cork that he’s done the same there. It didn’t look like Cork had a spare man. He’s big into closing space down for defenders, and then big into creating space for your forwards to operate in, like Eamon O’Shea would.
“Joe also had a massive impact on all of us in Clare. Before Joe I suppose we didn’t have an S&C coach who was with us full time. We might have someone who was with us for the first three months of the season, overlooking weights, but then you’d nearly stop and just hurl and anything you had built up was nearly gone by the championship.
“When Joe came in, all that changed. No word of a lie, I would have been on the phone to him four or five times a week, whether it was what to do in a gym session or should I beat eating this omelette here.
My body in 2012 and 2013 changed massively in those years — my whole physique, strength, power — because of the knowledge Joe had.
They still are in touch. Early this year Bugler participated in a charity event in which he had to physically exercise for 30 consecutive days for at least half an hour, all overseen by O’Connor’s health and exercise gym, Nisus, down in Tralee.
Some days it would have meant a spinning class with his fellow Flannan’s staff member Gary Brennan. The last day he did a session down in Tralee with Aidan O’Mahony under O’Connor’s watchful eye. Long before then though Bugler had offered a more striking gesture of his respect for his former trainer.
In 1980 on the day Cusack Park opened up, the departing Justin McCarthy was bidding farewell to the Clare players he guided to two national league finals but couldn’t quite help get over the line in two Munster finals when one of the players came across the dressing room floor bare-chested and handed him his jersey.
The jersey, number five, the player Ger Loughnane. Thirty-four years later, Bugler likewise presented his number five jersey to another outside but highly-valued coach, only going one step further by framing it for O’Connor.
Just one of many traditions and standards Bugler upheld in Clare.