Noel Walsh and Gabriel Keating didn’t set out to become pioneers in the early 1970s, rather both men were simply unhappy with the set-up in front of them.
Keating, first, for his focus was concentrated on the local front; Walsh, as was nearly always the case in the ensuing decades, was concerned with far bigger canvasses. Their paths, mind you, would eventually cross.
Gabriel Keating landed home to the small village of Cross in West Clare in ’73 after 10 years spent working with An Post in Roscommon. He secured work with the finance company Bowmaker and spent his days travelling around Limerick, Tipperary, and Clare. One evening on his way home from work, he came across a group of young men kicking a football at the Bridges of Ross, a synonymous landmark close to Loop Head lighthouse.
“I asked them had they no pitch to train on,” recalls Keating.
The men shook their heads and Keating took it upon himself to make sure that, in time, they had a field to call their own. A visit to parish priest Fr Seamus O’Dea was made and a meeting of locals on January 6, 1974 saw the founding of the Naomh Eoin GAA club. Three years later and Keating, along with the club’s adult team, were winging their way to New York where they played three games in Gaelic Park, the first Clare team to do so.
“One of the games was refereed by my good friend, Dr Mick Loftus, who would later become president of the GAA. It was a magical time over there.” Keating’s work with Naomh Eoin brought him to the attention of those toiling at the coalface of Clare football and it was Noel Walsh who asked him if he’d consider putting his name forward for the position of county football board chairman in 1981.
John McCarthy, the vice-chairman at the time, was also in the running, but later pulled out, clearing the path for Keating.
Miltown Malbay native Walsh had, by this juncture, given over a decade of service on the line with the Clare footballers.
Back to the early 70s, 1970 if we’re being exact, briefly.
Decent West Clare football men like Joe Hurley, Paddy Hennessy, Tadhg Murphy, Joe Taylor, and Walsh himself were fed up with how the county’s flagship football team was being looked after. Change, they agreed, was required.
A football board was mooted and despite receiving less than enthusiastic backing from the county board proper, a football board came to fruition. Miltown Malbay’s Paddy Hennessy was elected chairman. Murphy and Hurley would subsequently hold down this role before Keating arrived on the scene in the early 80s.
“We wanted the football set-up to be more professional than it was,” says Walsh.
“Before we came in, Clare football teams at all levels were treated badly with regard to how they travelled, accommodation and all that. One of our first league matches was away to Carlow. We stayed in a hotel in Carlow the night before. That was the first time that happened. In those years, we were in Division 3 which was divided into Division 3 north and Division 3 south. On two occasions, we won Division 3 south. We were beaten by Monaghan in Portlaoise in one promotion final and the following year in 1976 we played Armagh in Croke Park. We stayed in The Skylon. It was a great honour for the lads to play in Croke Park. The game went to a replay and we should have won, but didn’t.”
The year following selector Michael Moloney called 17-year old Noel Roche onto the squad. 15 years later he lined out at midfield as Clare celebrated a first Munster football title since 1917; the final destination all the sweeter given the long road travelled.
“Now, the set-up was good. Unfortunately, the turnout of players was poor,” Roche, a native of Kilkee, recollects.
“We always had a hard core of nine, 10 or 12 players who were willing to give it absolutely everything. We would never have enough numbers, however, that would make an appreciable difference, especially at championship time. We never had a shortage of good footballers in Clare, but unfortunately, the clubs took pride of place at the time. A lot of players had more appreciation for a club championship medal than they did pulling on the county jersey. Fitness was a big thing too. We would always hold our own for the first 25 minutes or so, or maybe early into the second-half, but then the whole thing would blow up because the amount of training that would have been done by the entire panel would have been minimal.”
Even finding a pitch to train on was a struggle.
“We’d go into St Flannan’s on a Saturday and I’d ask the president there was it alright if we trained,” remembers Walsh. “Half of the time, he would let us in.”
Roche will probably never forget those sessions in Flannan’s. “Most of them were done in the dark! We trained on the Fair Green in Ennis under street lights too. Personally, I enjoyed it. I never enjoyed being beaten, but if I didn’t enjoy football, I wouldn’t have played with Clare for as long as I did.”
Roche retired in March of 1995 citing “bad hips and even worse knees” and having played for Ireland in International Rules on four occasions. Standards were improving but the collective attitude was proving difficult to shift. Clare was a hurling county, reinforced by the back-to-back league titles captured in 1977 and ’78. And then there was the ’79 Miltown Malbay massacre, Kerry scoring a 9-21 to 1-9 Munster semi-final win over the home side. “That was catastrophic,” remarks Roche.
Noel Walsh takes a different view: “No team scored more against Kerry in the ’79 championship than we did that afternoon.”
The 80s brought incremental improvement; a handful of McGrath Cups and league success at Tipp’s expenses towards the end of the decade.
“We were third in Munster, no question,” continues Keating. “We contested Munster U21 finals in 1980, ’85, ’88 and ‘89. We had quite a few players that played for Munster in the Railway Cup, the likes of Noel Roche, Noel Normoyle, Gerry Killeen, Frankie Griffin and Aidan O’Keeffe. Football was largely confined to the west and what has been instrumental to the current side is the strength of the game in an outpost like Cratloe in the east. It was around the 1980s when we made a push to grow the game in the east of the county.” Keating, though, is in no doubt that their breakthrough was largely attributed to Noel Walsh’s success in bringing about the open draw for the 1991 Munster championship. A young John Maughan was secured as manager and there’s little point in regaling the tale about how many cows were milked on the afternoon of July 19, 1992.
All three men will be present in Croke Park tomorrow for the county’s first All-Ireland quarter-final appearance, all three in agreement that the victories over Laois, Sligo and Roscommon represent the progressive spell for football in the county since Martin Daly palmed to the Kerry net in the Gaelic Grounds 24-years ago.
“I really hope the Clare public get behind the team tomorrow because I don’t think they have come on board yet,” believes Roche. If there was 6,000 in Salthill last weekend, more than half were Clare. I remember we played a league quarter-final against Mayo in Mayo in ‘93, there were at least 9,000 Clare people at it. It is 24 years since we were up there in the championship. Who knows when we will be there again? We have to take this opportunity.”
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