LATE in 2006, when they came together for the first time, the Clare U21 hurling management would have had the obvious ambition of bringing a first ever Munster title to the county.
And, of course, they would have had aspirations of making it all the way to Croke Park, where Banner teams have been seen rarely enough on All-Ireland final day over the years.
Twelve months ago, they suffered the heartbreak of losing the Munster final to Tipperary at Cusack Park in the worst way imaginable. They were denied what would have been a winning point from a 21-yards free by an umpire ‘call’ at the other end which resulted in their goalkeeper being penalised for stepping outside the square when pucking out the ball and a 65 being awarded – from which the winning score came.
This year their luck changed, with that long overdue provincial title being annexed at Walsh Park after a Titanic battle with Waterford and a marvellous display against a Joe Canning-inspired Galway team earning them victory in the All-Ireland semi-final.
On Sunday they line up against Kilkenny in the decider in Croke Park.
“It’s where we wanted to bring this team when we started out three years ago,’’ says manager John Minogue.
Eleven times Clare unsuccessfully contested Munster finals before they were winners in what was the 46th championship to be decided. In 1997 a team managed by Kevin Kennedy (and which included his son Kenneth at full-back) made amends, coming through the backdoor system.
By coincidence, the first Clare team to contest an U21 final – back in 1972 – included Colm Honan, father of current star Darach, who is expected to be fit enough to start on Sunday despite making a slow recovery from a hamstring strain. It also featured a number of other players – Ger Loughnane, Sean Stack, John Callinan and Enda O’Connor among them – who, a few years later, were to lose in two Munster senior finals to Cork but win in two National League finals against Kilkenny.
And, what was also noteworthy about that 1972 team was that in the semi-final they defeated a Cork, who won the previous four All-Irelands, with Enda O’Connor scoring a late winning point.
Minogue, from the Scariff club, represented Clare in all grades and was part of two winning Oireachtas teams in the early 80s. And, in more recent times, he has proved his credentials as a coach in the Dr Harty Cup with St Flannan’s College, where he is vice-principal.
Minogue believes scoring forwards are crucial to his side. “I think a lot of teams were short maybe a Darach Honan or a Colin Ryan, who would put away the goal chances,’’ he commented.
“Clare teams will always score a reasonable amount of points, but if you take Kilkenny – and the Corks and the Tipperarys – if you play them at minor and U21 level they will always have one or two forwards who will stick the ball in the net.
“And, I think we are lucky this year, so far. Honan has scored something like 5-10 in his three matches. We didn’t have that before.’’
Without wishing to dwell too much on last year’s defeat in Ennis, Minogue agrees that what happened was “unfortunate”. “I never noticed goalies stepping outside the parallelogram before, but just watching the All-Ireland final last Sunday on television, goalies can’t avoid it. Their momentum takes them that half step outside, unless they put a runway at the back of the posts and let them run up and do it.
“It was a heartbreak for the lads, but we have a good bunch this year. A lot of them were there last year and we had some who were just over-age.’’
“Eight of last year’s team will be in action on Sunday and the squad has been further boosted by the availability of four players who were in Chicago last year. We were missing the two O’Donovans, Cian Dillon and Enda and they were a big loss.’’
Predictably, Minogue is very much opposed to the idea of abolishing the U21 grade in the interests of reducing player burnout. “It’s successful and it has given us some great games. If players are properly trained they won’t suffer from burnout.’’
Buoyed up by the progress of the team this year – the management includes former senior coach Cyril Lyons, who had Minogue as a selector in 2002 – he’s not so sure what the future holds for Clare at senior level. “I’m not sure if you can say that one successful U21 team will guarantee you a successful senior team
“History will tell you that if you get four, five or six from an U21 team it’s as much as you will get,’’ he added.
However, plotting for the future will be very much down in the pecking order when his players step out on to Croke Park for the first time on Sunday.
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