Restoring the Banner’s backbone

IT’S championship time, Munster senior hurling championship time, and wouldn’t you know it.

“The biggest honour a county can bestow on any player, on any of its citizens in fact, is to put a county jersey on his back on championship day,” says Mike MacNamara, “And it should be seen as such, it should be treated as such and it should be respected as such.”

Mike is the manager of the Clare team that faces Waterford in Limerick tomorrow in the Munster pipe-opener, and like Ger Loughnane and Tony Considine, the two men with whom he will be forever conjoined in hurling’s annals, passion is his middle name.

This is Mike’s first year at the helm of his native county, and he faces a daunting task. The glory days of the 90s are long past, fast becoming a distant memory, and most of the heroes of those heady days when the Banner flew highest are now gone to grass. Compounding the loss of those great players, last year saw Clare hurling mired in a bitter, divisive battle which was centred around the decision of long-time keeper Davy Fitzgerald to quit the panel. That battle ended in the firing of Tony Considine as senior hurling manager by the Clare county board, of which Pat Fitzgerald, Davy’s father, is secretary.

Into such a scenario walked the big publican from Scariff. “I found a county that had lost much of its pride, we had to work on that again. We also had to get away from controversy, the controversial days and nights which seemed to have become a regular occurrence in Clare hurling. Having been involved during the controversies of 1998 [the infamous Colin Lynch suspension, the premature final whistle in the All-Ireland semi-final], I wanted to steer clear of those type of incidents forever.”

It’s a very different time for Mike Mac, a very different team from that which he knew so well; not a single survivor from the side that started the famous 1995 campaign, only a few left from his last year, 1999.

Even in the last couple of years, while he was out of the scene (he spent time with Galway and Offaly in the interim), there have been changes. “I had drifted away, and you’d be amazed how quickly the scene changes, new faces, new names appearing all the time. I trusted my deputies to look after that, Alan [Cunningham], Ollie [Baker] and Fergie [Tuohy], in particular, they got the task of putting faces on the names I’d been reading about. We went on from there and I’m happy now we’re on the right track,” he says.

“Hopefully some of the new players will step into the breach; I don’t like to name names but Darragh Clancy is pushing forward with a great run, Pat Donnellan is there, Conor Plunkett is back, Mark Flaherty has been scoring freely in the league, had an outstanding year also with his club, Brendan Bugler is in his second season, Jonathan Clancy has come on again.” There is another name being whispered in Clare, another possible Joe Canning. Darren Honan is still a minor but already he has made his mark. Son of former star Colm, a giant of a youngster, is it possible we’ll see him this year in saffron and blue?

“Huge promise,” Mike admits, “But he’s still a minor, doing his Leaving Cert now. He has to come through the ranks, I don’t think senior championship hurling is any place for a minor. The ferocity of Munster senior championship hurling has to be learned slowly, maybe through an easier baptism.”

Ferocity. It was the by-word of that great team, the team trained by Mike Mac. This year, in April, after he had been less than impressed with their own individual training efforts, Mike again took charge, put them through their paces in a month which saw the frequency and intensity of the sessions ratcheted up.

Asked if we can expect to see that ferocity again this Sunday, this was the one question where Mike became evasive.

“One has to say that Waterford are the dominant team in Munster, have been for a number of years,” he said.

“So one would be hoping that they have their eye on something else. I’ve read where they’ve been likened to the Limerick team of the mid 90’s — that was a superb team, incredible players, but they all retired without a Celtic Cross. It would be dreadful if the same thing happened to this Waterford team, so I’d expect they have their sights set higher than Munster this year, which might give us a chance to jump in and snatch something.”

Snatch? Rest assured, Clare are intent on winning this one straight up, fair and square.

The Waterford injury situation is a factor, with Ken McGrath, Paul Flynn and Eoin Murphy definitely out, and doubts surrounding the fitness of Dan Shanahan, Eoin Kelly and Seamus Prendergast. Par for the course, says Mike: “We can only take care of our own problems, let Waterford take care of theirs.”

So what will constitute success? “A win, definitely! We need a performance, we need the players to battle all the way through.

“Success would be standing with the elite of Munster once again. We have the individual hurlers but the team game has deserted us for the last number of years. Blend these guys into a team, have them playing together, then move it up another notch, and who knows — September days again?”


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