Building, building, building, that’s Clare hurling over the last few years under Davy Fitzgerald, according to midfielder Nicky O’Connell, as a new generation of top-class hurlers are coming through.
The breakthrough All-Ireland U21 win of 2009, in which Nicky first came to prominence, was key and last year’s success at the same grade was further consolidation. Even at club level there has been revolution in Clare, starting with his own club, Clonlara.
“Yeah, we came up from intermediate a couple of years ago with a very young side, most of us were only 18 or 19 when we then won the senior county. Same thing in Cratloe, a young team and Newmarket-on-Fergus too are youth-based,” he said.
“The club scene is a good indication of how we’re going to be, it’s good to see clubs getting stronger again because it lifts the standard at county level.”
2009 was the start, the first wave and a first title for Clare at a grade just below the top level.
“If we hadn’t won the All-Ireland title in 2009, most of the lads that are playing senior now wouldn’t be there. That gave us a great momentum going on to the seniors, which we knew was going to be a massive step-up.”
Arguably, however, last year’s win, coming as it did against a Kilkenny team reinforced by several members of the senior title-winning side, was even bigger. O’Connell sees both sides.
“It could have been but I’m not sure. In a way, yes, but in a way also, no. A lot of lads last year were already on the senior team, whereas in 2009 that wasn’t the case, you still had the likes of Tony Griffin and those on the senior team.
“The lads who were on the senior team last year brought that experience to the U21s and the rest of the guys then stepped up their game.”
Even though he’s now only 23, Nicky could already be classified as one of the more experienced members of the Davy’s panel, a sign perhaps that people shouldn’t yet be getting carried away in their expectations.
“We’re a young side, 13 or 14 U21s on the panel. Everyone in training is trying to fight off someone. If you’re not going well, you’re going to be dropped because lads are playing so well in training. We know that anyone on the panel can actually start or come on and do a job.
“Davy is so passionate and wears his heart on his sleeve, he brings that out in the players as well — even in training, he’s always driving us on.”
Of course there’s a lot more to the manager than just passion. “Yes, he’s a great coach, definitely the best I’ve trained under; himself and Paul Kinnerk, they’re on a different level to most guys I’ve ever had.”
Last season saw good gains made, promotion from Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League achieved with a good win over Limerick; again this year that progression has been maintained and though now up with the elite, Clare go into the final round of games this Sunday in Division 1A against Tipperary in Thurles with every chance of advancing to the league semi-final.
Already they have had wins over Galway — beaten All-Ireland finalists last year — and old rivals Cork, their second-half performance in that game particularly impressive. Even last Sunday, a one-point loss to Kilkenny, was encouraging, only their own poor shooting in the second half (12 wides) costing Clare what would have been a deserved win over the modern-day kings of hurling.
“That result was a positive more than a negative because we got so close to the All-Ireland champions. It shows that we are good enough to compete with the big boys. It shows we are going places.”
Going places, but not there yet.
“The big one is the next day, we always knew the last one was probably going to be the most important one for us. I’m really looking forward to this one.”
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