They didn’t want to leave the pitch in Cusack Park on Wednesday night, a second Munster U21 hurling title in four years to be celebrated, but it was more than that.
Clare is a county very much on the rise, promotion from division 1B to division 1A in the Allianz Hurling League already secured, a number of fine performances in the championship before bowing out to Limerick just before quarter-final stage.
Manager of the senior team is former goalkeeper Davy Fitzgerald, who has placed his faith in youth. Of the Clare team that started against Tipperary on Wednesday, eight had featured prominently for Davy’s side, while just one Tipperary player — centre-forward Sean Curran — is a member of the senior panel, yet to figure in this year’s championship.
In those circumstances, if the forward momentum was to be maintained, this was a must-win game for Clare. Among those still out on the pitch celebrating the win long after the final whistle was former senior star Fergie Touhy. “We’ve lost big games in the past where we’ve been out-and-out favourites, but this was a critical game,” said Touhy, a member of the famed 90s double All-Ireland winning team.
Team captain Conor McGrath was one of the senior eight also basking in the glory — a succession of autographs to be signed. Would there have been the same eagerness amongst those young fans to collect that autograph, however, had subs Cathal McInerney and Niall Arthur not combined for the injury-time winning goal? Probably not. “It wasn’t looking good,” Conor admitted. “We needed a goal. It was a great sign of our panel to be able to bring subs off the bench and have them produce like that. It’s a big boost now, another few weeks together anyway.”
That strength in depth is no accident, reckons current wing-back Brendan Bugler, a very happy, but also very relieved spectator on Wednesday. “That’s down to the restructuring that was done a few years ago in the county at underage. The team that got to the minor All-Ireland final a few years ago, that’s the nucleus of this team, still progressing.
“The way they won that game — a few years ago that wouldn’t have happened. It brought back memories of a few years ago, same situation (2008 Munster U21 final, Clare lost to Tipp with a controversial last-minute point), but they pulled it out of the fire.”
Among those who have been very proactive in that underage development programme in Clare are joint U21 team managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney, and while this win was very much about the future, it was also about the past, as Gerry explains.
“We’ve been on the road with this team a long time. We won an U15 Munster title with these guys, beat Tipperary in Ballincollig — seems like a long time ago now! We spoke to the lads after that game, said it was no good just winning U15, you’ve got to drive on and drive on, keep winning at every level up along.
“The last three or four years, Donal, Paul Kinnerk, Jimmy Browne (also on the management team) and myself, we’ve put huge effort into these guys, but they’ve put in a phenomenal effort. Everything was on the line tonight — the way we play hurling, the way we approach things, and my God did we come up against a super team in Tipperary! ”
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