Challenging times for Clare in hurling’s bold new era

When Ger Loughnane brought out his book 18 years ago, he had the whole pick of Ireland to launch it for him.

Challenging times for Clare in hurling’s bold new era

When Ger Loughnane brought out his book 18 years ago, he had the whole pick of Ireland to launch it for him. Well, we’ll qualify that a bit — given how relations were with the great Feakle man at the time, the likes of Eamonn Cregan, Gerald McCarthy, and Liz Howard might have declined such an unlikely invite.

But you get the picture. He could have picked almost any celebrity, like the national football manager of the time Mick McCarthy or, as the book was called Raising The Banner, his own ‘Captain Fantastic’, Anthony Daly who, over a decade later, would ask Loughnane to launch his.

Instead Loughnane opted for a hidden figure in the Clare success story. Pat Fitzgerald might not have been a household name outside, or indeed inside of Clare the way the likes of Sparrow, Jamesie, and Lohan were — but that’s who Loughnane plumped for.

In the book itself, he’d explain why he held Fitzgerald in such high esteem. When he’d reflect on some of the county board officials during his playing days and shortly upon resuming the county managerial reins, he found himself thinking: “It wasn’t a question of why had Clare not won anything, but how could Clare possibly have won anything?” Fitzgerald was a new breed of official, representing “the new, that [which] respected the players”.

“We were lucky in a way in a lot of ways,” he’d expand. “Pat Fitzgerald is one of the most intelligent, constructive, and progressive administrators in the GAA. He is a brilliant man, a member of the board of Aer Rianta. He has a progressive vision of the future which very few administrators would have.”

That, though, was 18 years ago.

In that same book, Loughnane wrote of some people being “good for their time”. In the late ’70s he’d found Justin McCarthy’s methods fresh, innovative, cutting-edge — but Loughnane’s inference was they wouldn’t have cut it in the Revolution years, at least for Clare.

McCarthy’s subsequent success in Waterford might have challenged that thesis, but the manner of his eventual departure from Waterford and then Limerick showed that McCarthy had an expiry date. By then, Loughnane’s own methods were obsolete, as he’d freely admit himself after the Galway experiment.

Now he’s come to the same conclusion about the man who launched his book. Recently in his newspaper column, he wrote about how Fitzgerald has done “plenty of good work in the past and is still doing good things” but “I think he’s been there too long and has too much power.” He’d elaborate. “Change is always good and necessary. Too many people in Clare of great quality feel excluded.”

Like with most things Loughnane says, not everyone agreed with him. Davy Fitzgerald certainly didn’t when blowing off Loughnane’s comments as “sad”.

What Davy should find truly sad though is that the majority of GAA people in Clare would agree with Loughnane. The protracted saga over the senior hurling managerial position is viewed as merely a symptom, not the cause, of Clare’s difficulties.

Watching how Jurgen Klopp engages with everyone from his players to the fans to the media, this column recently asked itself not just who wouldn’t love to play for that man, but what coach or manager in the GAA most approximated that sense of charisma and geniality?

It didn’t take us long to come to an answer: Anthony Daly. But then that soon prompted another series of questions. Why would Clare GAA not want that man involved in some capacity? Why is it that there’s a real possibility now that Tony Kelly and his peers will finish their careers having never teamed up with Daly?

Why is it that someone whose expertise and exuberance the likes of Dublin and Limerick have tapped into this past decade has not been utilised by Clare?

Daly pretty much answered that for all of us in these pages last Monday. He wrote how the “culture is all wrong”, describing how backroom staff and thus players would drive to the county’s training base, only to find the gates closed. His recounting of Clare teams only managing to get the late-night training slots in UL is likely to be relived this coming winter with no current manager in situ, or there might be no slots left there at all.

In such an environment, Daly was doubtful if he “could work with a number of top officials in the county”, but he was certain that “it’s about time they [the clubs] ushered in more change than just a new manager”.

The issue of time has arisen before. Pat Fitzgerald has been Clare county secretary since 1991, but only went full-time in 2007. As he was over 60 at the time, the issue was raised on his behalf at Central Council if he would be allowed to serve all of the customary seven-year term.

At the time, the GAA said there could be no exceptions — but Fitzgerald would indeed remain on; just as Cork wanted Frank Murphy to remain in place to oversee the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Clare delegates in 2015 gave him the green light to supervise the development of Cusack Park — yes, there was one — thus overriding his contract with Croke Park that expired in July 2016. (“There is no longer a stipend from Dublin,” Fitzgerald would clarify at county convention that year. “I took a significant cut in my pay.”)

The only thing is, the new stand in Cusack Park opened in March 2017. Thirty months later, Fitzgerald ploughs on.

In doing so, as Loughnane himself has said, he continues to do good work. Although the alterations to this year’s county football championship format was a dubious success, the Clare county championships, for the most part, are among the best scheduled and best organised in the entire country.

But just as board officials like Fitzgerald feel that a change of managers would be good for a team and a setup gone stale, GAA folk now feel the same about its leaders.

Loughnane in the 1990s found Fitzgerald a players’ man, but the county’s current players don’t. One of them, Paul Flanagan, tweeted last week:

Why is it that in a time of increasing insatiable professionalism among GAA teams that the opposite is the case for GAA administration? #darkages #VisionZero.

Flanagan may have been referring to other counties as well as his own; at the moment almost every other county north of Clare on the western seaboard seems to have issues. But there’s no doubt Clare GAA has to look at where it’s going and who must lead.

For much of the 1980s, Clare were nowhere, also-rans, while a county like Cork, with a Murphy at the helm, were leaders. Then, in the ’90s as Cork stagnated, Clare broke through with a dynamic officer like Fitzgerald. Now in Cork, Murphy is gone, replaced by Kevin O’Donovan, who has re-energised and re-united a county.

All its old prodigal sons have returned: Ger Cunningham, Seán Óg, Dónal Óg. To even compete with — let alone beat — a Cork in the coming decade, Clare need something similar. Next week it needs to look beyond just who will be its next manager, but also at the prospect and timeline of life after Pat Fitz, before more of the goodwill and legacy he’s earned is eroded.

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