Clare skipper Conor Cleary breaks with tradition

Traditional Irish music and Gaelic football, the foundation stones of life out Miltown Malbay direction.

Hurling? Doesn’t figure, not since Michael Cusack’s time anyway.

Step forward then Conor Cleary, West Clare’s exception to the rule. Tomorrow night, Cleary will lead the Clare U21 hurlers onto the Cusack Park turf in their bid to secure a fourth consecutive Munster title - a feat last achieved by Cork, from 1968-71.

Adhering to tradition, Cleary’s brother Eoin grew up with a football in his right hand and earlier this summer earned his senior championship debut under Colm Collins.

So how is it then that Conor has come to be a leading figure in this golden generation of Banner hurlers?

“My mother and father always pushed Eoin and I to play both sports, and it wasn’t just football. I remember when I was watching hurling games when I was younger, they’d say ‘we’ll bring you over to Kilmaley’ and they did for a finish,” he recalls.

“Eoin stuck with the football, but I kept up the hurling.” Having registered with Kilmaley, the next step was to enrol at St Flannan’s in Ennis.

“Going to Flannan’s was a big thing. It’s hurling morning, noon and night there. That was a big factor in me keeping the hurling going and having a bit of success was great too. Tony Kelly, Jack Browne, Peter Duggan, those lads were there in Flannan’s with me. We had a strong enough schools team so it was great to be training with players of that standard too. It brought you on.”

A minor in 2012, he first tasted success in the saffron and blue as part of the 2013 Munster and All-Ireland U21 winning panel.

Cleary didn’t feature in that campaign, but would command the number six shirt the following summer.

Now the goal is to join the small list of hurlers - Tony Kelly, Paul Flanagan, Conor McGrath and Liam Markham - who have captained the county to provincial and All-Ireland U21 glory.

Mind you, with just three survivors from last year’s team, little was expected of this current crop. That was until All-Ireland favourites Waterford were taken out earlier this month.

“There’s still nothing won,” he continued. “We didn’t look past the Munster semi-final all year, everything we talked about was Waterford. Unless you actually win a title, that’s when a team is recognised. At minor, we lost the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final so the teams gone by in the last three years have all made names for themselves, but we haven’t yet and that’s the big thing driving us on.

“A lot of the lads were part of the panels for the last two years but weren’t getting game-time. They were going so well in training, but it was only because the calibre of player was so good that they weren’t getting game-time. They’re getting the chance to shine this year and they’re really taking it.”

Crucial too was the decision of Donal Moloney to stay on after joint-manager Gerry O’Connor left last October.

“He’s the man who makes it all tick. The way he gets on with the players and can get the best out of them, it’s second to none. We’re blessed to have him. Even the lads he’s brought in this year, to have Seanie McMahon on board and Kevin O’Grady, Kieran Corcoran, Peter Casey, they’re all serious men to have.”

On working under childhood hero, Cleary added: “Seanie [McMahon] is serious. I wanted to be Seanie McMahon since I was five or six-years old. To see then what he’s done, it’s crazy.”

Meanwhile Limerick have named their side for tomorrow night’s final:

1 David McCarthy (Glenroe), 2 Mark O’Callaghan (Knockaderry), 3 Richie English (Doon), 4 Michael Casey (Na Piarsaigh), 5 Diarmaid Byrnes? (Patrickswell)(Vice Captain), 6 Barry O’Connell (Kildimo Pallaskenry)(Captain), 7 Gearoid Hegarty (St. Patrick’s), 8 Darragh O Donovan (Doon), 9 Pat Ryan (Doon), 10 Ronan Lynch (Na Piarsaigh), 11 Robbie Hanley (Kilmallock), 12 David Dempsey (Na Piarsaigh),13 Colin Ryan (Pallasgreen),14 Tom Morrissey (Ahane) 15 Cian Lynch (Patrickswell).

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