Cusack Park in Ennis is the headquarters of Clare GAA, the field on which the All-Ireland senior hurling champions of 2013 were fired and forged.
Directly across the river Fergus from the back of the new stand is Rice College and sitting behind the desk in the Principal’s office is one of the smiths who did that forging, team coach and selector Louis Mulqueen.
It’s not a renowned hurling nursery, Rice College; that honour is held by St Flannan’s, on the other side of the town. There was that one year though, when the local college hurling world did tilt on its axis, recalled Mulqueen with a wry smile.
“This is a very traditional academic school, always very highly ranked, but we’re gradually introducing a sporting element. There was always hurling and football and Seanie McMahon and Colin Lynch are former pupils. We won the Harty Cup in 1962 for the one and only time, beat St Flannan’s in the final and it’s often quoted here.”
Mulqueen first got involved in coaching with Clare back in 1984 and apart from a couple of years following his appointment to the Principal’s position in Rice College in 2008, he has been involved every year since.
“I’d been with Clare in one guise or another for over 20 years, then had been up in Galway with Ger Loughnane — I needed a break and I needed time to get a handle on the new job here in the school. I took a break for a few years but Davy (Fitzgerald) kept calling and I was back on the scene again. It’s been good, a pleasant side-track from issues at school.”
As it has done with so many others his profession has facilitated his hurling involvement. In fact, teaching is probably the best-represented profession in the current Clare setup. “John Conlon has just started in the primary school here on a temporary basis — he calls into me sometimes for lunch and the excitement around that is good for the school. Fergal Lynch and Cian Dillon are also in primary teaching, Colin Ryan is in secondary, a few others are in Mary I in training. Brendan Bugler is another, he’s gone down to Kilkenny teaching in Callan.”
It’s not just a profession of course; for the best of teachers it’s also a vocation. People like Louis Mulqueen aren’t clock-watchers, don’t just punch-in in the morning, punch out in the afternoon. They go above and beyond, way beyond, not for material reward or recognition but simply because this is the way they’re made, people with a drive to help others maximise their potential.
Away from his desk Louis also has that drive and in the last 30 years he has been centrally involved with several groundbreaking sides – the All-Ireland-winning Clare minor team of 1997, likewise the St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield club side of 1999. None will have given him the satisfaction of last year’s All-Ireland, though.
It was a most unlikely triumph. True, Clare had made good progress in 2012 following the appointment of Davy Fitzgerald as manager, won promotion to the elite division in the Allianz Hurling League, but championship success was still proving elusive. 2013 started well and retaining that elite status in the league was another minor triumph, beating Cork after extra-time in a magnificent contest in the relegation final, but when they then lost to the same opposition in the Munster semi-final things looked bleak.
After that, however, everything kicked off and the outstanding work done by Davy and his management team began to pay dividends. “Before the Cork match (in Munster) we had ideas but Cork knocked us back on our heels. We regrouped, then came Laois and Wexford in the All-Ireland qualifiers and the confidence came back again so that we were ready for Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, ready for Limerick in the semi-final, ready for the two encounters with Cork in the final.”
Six hugely competitive league games, eight massive championship games; 2013 was in fact almost two seasons squeezed into one and with a team backboned by youngsters, an average age of less than 23. It gave the players the kind of experience no education can provide, it gave Fitzgerald the training-time and — more critically — the game-time to practice the new systems.
“When Davy took over, Clare hurling was in Division 1B and hadn’t won a championship game in Munster for years. Beating Dublin in the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2012 was a big progression, to win a first championship game in a long time, having also won promotion from Division 1B — that in itself was a big lift. So that was progress, but we knew there was still a lot of work to be done. The lads were disappointed, watching other teams playing through the summer. We went away and regrouped, started to prepare for 2013, put in a lot more work on strength and conditioning, on getting the positivity of the head right, on the skills and on the game-plan. The eight games in the championship allowed us to progress but even going back to the league, that was brilliant for us, five titanic matches, playing well in most of them, getting pipped in one or two where it really hurt, like against Kilkenny in Cusack Park.”
Ah – Kilkenny, everyone’s barometer when the 2013 championship started. Limerick — eventual Munster champions — name-check them as a major indicator of how they themselves knew they were making progress, a challenge match win at the Staker-Wallace GAA club pitch-opening in Martinstown over the almighty Cats just before the championship began had them in good stead. And Brian Cody himself noted the aforementioned league game as a day he knew this Clare team were the real McCoy. Louis agrees. “Kilkenny came to play, as they always do. We outhurled them but they got two goals at crucial times, just before half-time and then halfway through the second half, when we had been well on top. But we saw fellas that day standing up to who we were playing, standing up to the conditions, and took great heart from that.”
What really caught the eye that day was how the vaunted Kilkenny defence appeared mesmerised, helpless, in the face of the relentless Clare attack. Had Clare been a little more composed in their shooting that day – albeit forgivable in the prevailing conditions – they would most certainly have won. Perhaps too though it was just as well as it gave those young Clare forwards the belief they could go toe-to-toe with the biggest gun in hurling and not just survive but thrive, but it also gave them something to work on.
And work they did, the Clare attack running up bigger and bigger scores as their championship run began to unfold. “I’ve never seen forwards like these in Clare before. In the team of the 90s we had Jamsie O’Connor, then we had players like Conor Clancy, PJ O’Connell and those, fantastic heart and workrate but who didn’t have the skill level of these guys. The thing is though, these guys also have that work-rate. Everyone knows about Colin Ryan’s phenomenal scoring-rate but what about his work-rate? Himself and John Conlon back-tracking to help out in midfield, even in the half-back line. Then you had Podge (Collins), Shane (McGrath), Darach (Honan), Shane (O’Donnell), a new element in Clare hurling where they weren’t trying to score just from frees or picking off a point here and there, you had potential goal-getters and you had guys who could score points for fun. Like, some of the points Tony Kelly scored — people talk about a few of the Podge Collins points but to me, the points Kelly got you could collect on DVD and use to show kids how to play this game.”
And as Kilkenny have shown in the last decade and more new talent coming through to keep the pressure on those already in place has been the secret. Injuries, or lack of, also played their part.
“A major break we got last year was that we didn’t have an injury in the back-line all through the championship. When Cian Dillon came back in time for the Waterford game, those were the six backs for the whole championship but the forwards kept rotating — when we did make changes it seemed to be from midfield up. We can’t expect that to happen again, that’s an area we need to strengthen for 2014, we need to give ourselves options in the backline and the contenders there need to get a stronger run in the league. And we have options, fellas like Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne, Alan O’Neill, they all need more game-time, as do the likes of Seadna Morey, Nicky O’Connell and Cathal McInerney. They got some game-time in the league but when it came to the championship they were squeezed out because fellas were playing so well. We need to see more of those guys.”
And if that isn’t enough, there are others too who will push for starting places, like the Duggans (Peter and Bobby) (not related) and the ultra-skilful Cathal ‘Toots’ O’Connell, all tremendous prospects. They’ll push, but they’ll find it very difficult to replace those who brought glory to the Banner last year. Young they were but even Louis, in all his years involved with players at every level, never met as cool a bunch.
“We knew they had the potential, you wanted to see them produce it on the big day and in the manner in which they stood up to the physical challenge of Limerick in the semi-final, we could see it was there, even before the All-Ireland final. I remember being with Tony Kelly at one stage, walking around Croke Park before the game, pointing to the crowds in the packed stand and saying to him — ‘They’re here to see you Tony!’; ‘That’s no bother’ was his reply and he meant it. Where some players might have been overwhelmed there wasn’t a stir out of Tony, and it was the same with everyone else. I was with Clare teams, in 2002 for example, where some players didn’t play to their potential, but these lads thrived on it. When they came to Croke Park for the semi-final, 60,000 in the stands, it was a case of ‘Where are the other 20,000? Bring them on!’ Like, the calm in the dressing-room before the All-Ireland final — where usually you’d have to gee up players, or maybe even have to calm down one or two, these players were just there, in the zone, in the right place. It was probably because they were all so used to each other from minor and U21, some of them have been together for four years so they’ve become familiar with each other.
“Then you add in the likes of Donnellan, Bugler and Kelly, more experienced players, and it all comes together, every one of them trying to improve themselves and each other. Brendan Bugler used to send me photos of his breakfast, to show me what he was eating — he was that meticulous. There’s a very high level of learning in the group and to see the magic worked by Davy, pulling everyone together and getting us to produce the potential we had in the group.”
So, where to now? “We said last year that when you got the opportunity you had to take it – we did. Now we have to develop on that because every other team will be out to stop us. You can be sure that while we’ve been going around with the cup for the few months before Christmas, other teams were back plotting and planning. All the others will be targeting a Clare team that I would say won a pure hurling final. You look at us and Cork, Conor Lehane walked through us the first day for a fantastic goal, Conor McGrath did similar for us in the replay — other teams will be looking at that and saying, ‘How do you stop this?’ I wonder, will we see such a pure game of hurling again? You look at the physicality of some teams, they’re going to come at us this year with that. We were playing dynamic hurling, people will now be trying to come up with a way to counteract that. In fact, we’ll have to come up with a way ourselves tocounteract it. That’s where Clare hurling has to go — Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, work on it even more so that even Plan D and E have to be considered.”
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