Miltown Malbay is guaranteed to be cock-a-hoop next week when the Willie Clancy Festival throws in, but you might mistake it for starting early if hometown man Conor Cleary is part of a first Munster SHC-winning Clare side in 20 years this Sunday.
Cleary plays his club hurling with Kilmaley, just over a 20-minute drive towards Ennis but he’s aware of his unique situation being “not from a hurling stronghold” as Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh once famously put it.
“So in that regard it wasn’t as if I was isolated in the west for a couple of years, I was basically living in Ennis for six years, and got great scope with the standard that the boys were playing.
“I took great confidence from my final year minor. I was lucky to play centre-back with the Clare minor hurling team and got a feel for it then and kind of made my decision that I wanted to try and make the Clare senior hurling panel and thankfully I did.”
A former county minor and U21 footballer, there would have been a few in Miltown-Malbay who queried his choice of code but Cleary never had any doubt about his decision.
(Indeed brother Eoin impressed for the Banner’s footballers in Sunday’s All-Ireland Qualifier win over Offaly and will hope to start a winning weekend for the county with victory over Armagh on Saturday).
A panel member five years ago, the 24-year-old didn’t make his Championship debut until 2016. “I was trying my best to get on it but it was just down to the strength of the panel (that I couldn’t). But I had some developing to do, too, from that 2014 year. I wasn’t ready to play senior maybe the year after. I was two or three years on the panel before I was able to play and to be up to the physicality and speed of it.
“Also the speed of my hurling had to come up. I knew what I needed to do, so I just worked on that in my first two years on the panel and the quality of player I was playing against inside here (in Caherlohan) too was always going to improve me.”
Cleary’s main recollection of last year’s Munster final loss to Cork in Thurles - they have not beaten them in their four SHC meetings since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay - was the opposition’s swagger. “It was a fast-paced game. Any time you play Cork they really back themselves to out-hurl you and they’re serious hurlers. That’s my main memory from it, the confidence they play with. They were really just very good on the day, they were worthy winners.”
But was it a case of Clare leaving it behind them? “No, I think Cork were just better on the day. They’ve beaten us twice now in Championship and I think they’ve just been worthy winners, they’ve been better than us on the two days (Munster SHC opener last month) and there’s no point in papering over it and saying they weren’t.”
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