It was no surprise that new Clare hurling boss, Brian Lohan, picked a player in his own likeness as captain for the year ahead. John Conlon may inhabit a different end of the field than the Banner legend did during his playing days, but the differences between the two end there.
Clonlara’s first-ever Clare captain is like his predecessor from Shannon. A strong man in every sense — obdurate and unyielding on the field; swashbuckling when in full flight; a talisman to lift all around him.
And just as Lohan did it for years, so, too, has Conlon, who is now embarking on his 12th senior season and is Clare’s most experienced player.
He came into the set-up as a 19-year-old, under Mike McNamara’s watch, in 2009, with both manager and some of the players providing an umbilical cord back to the heady days of the 1990s.
Now, at 30, along with Tony Kelly, Podge Collins, Pat O’Connor, Seadna Morey, Shane O’Donnell, and Cathal McInerney, he’s one of an ever-shrinking number of playing links to the 2013 All-Ireland victory.
“Every year, it’s getting younger,” says Conlon, now the elder statesman, “but if you look after yourself and are lucky enough with injuries, you can have a long career. You look at Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher, and Seamus Callanan, of Tipp, and Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly. I played against them underage. They’re still backboning their teams. It’s good to see older lads around and it’s always important, in a panel, to have a wise head to give a bit of advice here and there. When I started out, it was Colin Lynch, Niall Gilligan, and Tony Griffin that gave me great advice and showed me traits that I brought into my career, so I try to do the same to try and leave the jersey in a better place,” he adds.
The reins of captaincy have passed to Conlon from Pat O’Connor, a fellow survivor, along with goalkeeper, Dónal Tuohy, of the side that beat Kilkenny in the 2009 All-Ireland U21 final.
“It is a great honour,” the Shannon schoolteacher says of the captaincy. “The respect I have for Brian. When I was a young lad, in the Hogan Stand, or down in Thurles, I would have been looking on and seeing the way he led the team, as a player and as a captain.
“For him picking me as captain is massive, but, at the same time, it doesn’t change a lot. It’s only a tag beside your name, apart from having a bit more responsibility, on and off the field. There are great leaders within the team that would have been doing a lot behind the scenes to help Pat O’Connor out in the last number of years. Pat has been a fantastic captain. Any bit of advice I can get off him, I’ll be looking for it,” Conlon says.
“He will still be leading the team, while I’ll be doing the exact same thing as I was doing before. It’s all about coming together and trying to do the best for Clare hurling.”
That process begins with Sunday’s visit of Carlow to Cusack Park, with the new format to the National League already proving a winner within the squad. “I’d be all for the format,” says Conlon. “In the championship, now, there are 12 teams that can compete at the highest level. Last year, you saw how well Carlow competed. They ran Galway close and probably knocked them out of the championship on scoring difference. You look at Laois and what they did.
“They were a story of the championship, in beating Dublin. I think, what all these teams need is confidence playing at this level, so the league will be great for that. It will set up be for teams to try different lads. It’s nearly like a second championship and great to help teams get right for May and June.”
Those corresponding months last year were hugely disappointing for Clare, especially after the run to the All-Ireland semi-final of 2018 helped Conlon net his first All-Star.
Now, under new management, Conlon says it’s about putting the building blocks in place once more. “In any walk of life and in any organisation, change is always good,” he says.
“Dónal (Moloney) and Gerry (O’Connor) did fantastic work with us and we were sad to see them go, but the change came and Brian has been received very well. He’s learning; we’re learning. The management team have brought a real freshness to the group and everyone has a clean slate.
“That’s what Brian has brought. We respect the man greatly for what he’s done for us, as a manager, but also as a player. If we can take the passion that he brought, as a player, to the field it will bode well for the future.”