IN these lockdown times we have plenty of time to think about things, and my mind wanders back to 25 years ago, and the wonderful hot summer of 1995.
I may appear very biased in this recap, but please understand, as we Clare people had been starved of any hurling success for a long long time.
When I was approached by Ger Loughnane to get involved as a mentor with the Clare hurlers for the 1995 season, I had to give it a lot of thought.
I knew the commitment was going to be huge, with a massive workload. After two massive defeats in ’93 and ’94 this was a huge challenge as confidence was at a very low ebb, both in the players and in the county in general.
However, together with Mike Mac and Ger we decided to lay out a programme that we believed would improve these players, both mentally and physically, and it all started by scouring the county for talent.
We looked at every club, junior, senior and intermediate, for players who showed potential, but above all, who would have the right character and mentality required, and who would buy into the strict regime we had in mind.
And so it began, despite reservations from some quarters of the County Board. We got to work.
Our main objective was to win the Munster Championship, but we also wanted to do well in the league. We needed to build up players confidence and belief in themselves, and that started with hard physical training.
Ger’s aim was to get these guys mentally tough, and not collapse when the big days came. He knew from his own experience as a player, how previous management and some players had collapsed on the big occasions. He was also aware that we needed to be completely in control of all team matters, and by God did that happen.
Everyone was treated the same: no cliques here, no player-power, no County Board power, just fairness. There was one boss, and no one ever doubted that. He was hard but fair.
We had a good run in the League that year, got to the final, but lost to Kilkenny. As usual.
The criticism began, 'them players are no good; Loughnane, Considine and Mac know nothing, they should never have gotten the job anyway; we're wasting our money following them lads'. Typical losing talk from losing counties.
But somehow we didn’t feel that way. Hence, the bould Ger stating to the media after that league final loss, that we were going to win the Munster Championship!
This is something that would never have been said by a losing Clare manager before, but as a management team we were not too disappointed after this loss, as we knew the real hurling hadn’t started yet, and we were still doing hard physical training, and our hurling was not as sharp as we wanted it to be. We knew we would improve that.
We also knew we wouldn’t be playing some of these players in the Championship, and that we needed to find three or four more players and that’s all we were short. We felt we had them on our panel: Ollie Baker, Fergal Hegarty Stephen McNamara and Fergie Tuohy.
None of these started in the league final. But they were showing well in training. Championship was going to be their time.
One of the things that really brought this team together was a bonding weekend we had in Killarney - lads were allowed to have a few drinks - everyone together - singing a few songs - having a bit of fun and getting to know the lads a bit better, especially when they had a few pints taken.
That was the Friday night, but what they didn’t know was what was coming Saturday morning! A lung-bursting session on a pitch out in Fossa, and a great hurling session in Fitzgerald stadium that evening...
And they had another few pints that night too, but not in great humour for singing, they were in bed early. If they were asked today, I’d say they would all agree it was one of the highlights, apart from Loughnane singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the Sparrow following it with ‘Is it right or left for Gibraltar’ in his best Christy Moore voice.
The first round of the Championship was against Cork in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds in the semi-final. Not an easy task, but we survived - just - with a late Ollie Baker goal, and still Cork had a chance to win it with Kevin Murray’s attempted goal when Frank Lohan came out of nowhere to save the day.
We were in the Munster Final against our arch-rivals, Limerick.
We had our breakfast in the Cashel Palace Hotel - Daly loved the Clonakilty black pudding - full of nutrition! We had a warm-up in Cashel GAA field and a puck around.
I felt there was something different about this day. Everyone was calm, but there was a steely determination in everybody.
The bus journey to Thurles was quiet but a very important thing happened just before we came to the stadium, all the Limerick supporters noticed it was the Clare bus, and they started singing 'what a waste of time'.
It really motivated the players. I could hear some of the players saying 'we’ll show ye'. We were ready. We knew there would be no collapse, it was the opposite actually, we played out of our skin.
Although we were well outnumbered by Limerick supporters that they, it did not show on the field of play, as we were all over Limerick. Guys like PJ O’Connell, who gave the great Ciaran Carey a roasting, Jamsie O’Connor on fire, and Stephen McNamara, Ollie Baker and Fergal Hegarty all really performing. It was an incredible day. Even the Limerick supporters applauded us as we made our way through Thurles with the cup in the front of the bus.
The journey home was brilliant. The craic was mighty, this meant everything to us, celebration time in Clare.
Crowds welcoming us in every village and crossroads. Never before seen in Clare by young and old. We even toured the county for a few days with the cup. It was the right thing to do, but we had other things on our mind now.
An All-Ireland semi-final against our neighbours Galway was next up. And we had no fear of playing Galway and proved it. It was one of Jamsie O’Conner’s best displays for Clare, could we believe it, we were in the All-Ireland final.
Now was the real test for us as a management team, we had to keep a lid on it, the county was gone mad.
All the players were heroes and all young men. This was handled very well by Ger, keeping the players focused at all times on what really mattered. It wasn’t the crowds or the media but it was a chance we might not ever get again.
Gates were closed for training and this is where it really proved to us that we were good enough to win the All-Ireland. The in-house matches were ferocious, everyone fighting for their place, not just to be on the team but to be on the panel.
And the rest is history. We knew we were capable of beating Offaly.
It probably wasn’t the best All-Ireland, and I would go as far as to say, it was a poor All-Ireland, hurling-wise, but to us Clare people, it was the best one ever played.
Definitely after 81 years of waiting.