CLARE hurlers open their Munster championship campaign against Waterford at the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday with links to their 1995 All-Ireland winning success at every turn.
Their remarkable 1995 odyssey began at this same Limerick venue, and familiar faces likes Mike McNamara, Ollie Baker, Fergie Tuohy and Frank Lohan are still there 13 years later, in a variety of guises.
McNamara, then a selector, is now at the helm following stints with Galway and Offaly. Former players Baker and Tuohy are on the backroom staff, alongside Alan Cunningham, while Lohan is still battling away inside the white lines.
How Banner fans would love a return to the glory days shaped by the men above. Last season, Clare lost to Cork in their first outing, made progress through the qualifiers but lost to Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
It’s history now how Tony Considine’s term was beset by controversy, largely stemming from the omission of Davy Fitzgerald from the squad and personality clashes at county board level.
New captain Brian O’Connell (who takes the armband from Wolfe Tones club-mate Lohan) accepts such issues didn’t help their cause.
“We’d like to think we put it out of our minds, but maybe it was there, niggling away,” said O’Connell.
“There was always something in the media about someone leaving, or someone saying something.
“I suppose it does upset a group. It somehow crept in. We were maybe not as tuned in or as focused as we should have been. The result came out on the field unfortunately. Towards the latter stages of the championship it dawned on me that between the way the county board was going — and Tony probably knew himself — this was ‘his stint’ and he was probably not going to get another year.
“We found it difficult to focus on game after game and training after training when that kind of stuff was going on.”
Describing McNamara as “a great character” and “very approachable”, he says that the players are very happy with the new set-up.
“It’s good to have a fresh face, a new voice. Mike loves Clare hurling. It’s the one thing he thinks about constantly. He’s been involved with U21s, minors and seniors. It’s good to see him in the senior job. He’s been waiting for it for a couple of years.”
O’Connell is in his sixth year in the team, having been brought in by Cyril Lyons and working under Anthony Daly for three campaigns.
In terms of regaining their status as one of the leading contenders for the MacCarthy Cup, the nucleus of the team has been around for a while and the management recognised this by introducing a number of players to the squad.
The return of Tony Griffin has been a boost, the goalkeeping controversy has been put to bed and players like Frank Lohan, Colin Lynch and Niall Gilligan (currently injured) are as committed as ever. “Colin is just like Mike Mac, he loves Clare hurling. He talks about it 24/7.
“I think he is back at his best now. He is really looking forward to this year’s Championship. He is going to give it a good go this year. Hopefully it’ll be a good one for his sake and the likes of Frank and Gillie.”
Their league campaign was mixed, highlighted by a draw with eventual champions Tipperary in Cusack Park and by another good performance against Galway in Pearse Stadium — except that they lost their chance of winning after having a player sent off. “It was no harm to get knocked out when we did. We had time to do a work in training,” he said.
“We’re really looking forward to championship. You couldn’t underestimate Waterford. They have been looking for the All-Ireland for the last couple of years. But anything can happen on the day. Maybe we might cause an upset or two.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved