IT isn’t even Donal Tuohy’s last year playing U-21 but the grade has already provided him with more pronounced highs and darker lows than many hurlers see in their careers.
It may have been the single most dramatic incident of the 2008 GAA summer. With the Munster U-21 final on a knife edge, a quick puck-out from Tuohy found Patrick Kelly and the subsequent Clare attack yielded a free just 20 metres from the Tipp goal.
The Cusack Park crowd roared its approval as the point, that was all but certain to result; would probably be enough to see the Banner crowned Munster U-21 champions for the first time.
But seconds later, the title was torn from Clare’s grasp. As all and sundry now know Tuohy had stepped outside the small square and instead of taking a one-point lead, Clare fell a point behind and were denied yet again, this time in the most controversial of circumstances. The 65’ against Tuohy ranks as one of the most heart-breaking incidents in Clare GAA history.
Obviously, he was hugely disappointed in the aftermath of the game but time is a healer and now, a year on and with a Munster medal pocketed, Tuohy isn’t too inclined to dwell on the events of that crazy evening.
“I didn’t really know at the time that I had gone over. I didn’t really protest it, in hindsight, you could say that I should have stayed inside but it’s very easy to say that. I spotted that Patrick Kelly had made a run and you can’t just stop up and think about it. You have to do these things at a fast pace.”
While the manner of that defeat offered an obvious rallying point for the 2009 side, Tuohy says it actually wasn’t used for motivation.
“Nobody talked about it this year at all. It’s funny, we were watching the video of the Waterford match the day afterwards and the preview part showed last year’s final. It was actually the first time Domhnall O’Donovan saw that incident. That just said it all. We’d moved on.”
The Munster final in Waterford offered him and the survivors from 2008 a chance to put some ghosts to rest and lift the gloom that had been hanging over Clare hurling, after a terrible year at senior level. Tuohy has warm memories of the evening in Fraher Field.
“It was a brilliant atmosphere. There was a bit of hurt there after last year, more from the supporters than the players. It’s rare to see scenes like that after a match.”
With the Munster title won, his next challenge would be to keep Joe Canning from raising green flags. While he did his best, the Portumna youngster still hit four goals and Tuohy said it reflected his undisputed brilliance. “As he proved again, he’s a class act. The 21s and penalties were absolute rockets, he’s one in a million, some player. We were lucky enough to escape without him doing even more damage.”
However, he felt that Clare should have paid a little more attention to the obvious threat Canning would pose from close in frees. “One thing we should have done more of before the match was practise penalties and 21’s. We should have focused on it before the match because he’s lethal at those.”
While the U-21s run-up to the All-Ireland final has overshadowed it, 2009 was marked by a number of wretched performances and bad results for the county’s senior side.
It was Tuohy’s first year on the senior panel and he says that while the results may have been poor, a number of the U-21 side improved as a result of being involved.
“A lot of people look at it negatively but any of the U-21s would say they’ve learned a good bit from it. Colin Ryan and John Conlon improved immensely I think. They came on big time. Colin would probably have been low in confidence last year but he improved and it helped him a lot. Conlon as well, he’s bulked up a lot and he’s a serious man to have in the half-forward line.”
He feels that the retirements of Frank Lohan and Colin Lynch left the senior squad without a pair of prized leaders, while early league defeats drained confidence, something that the best efforts of Mike Mac and company couldn’t replace.
“It probably started after the Limerick game, confidence went down. Supposing if we’d played Cork’s weaker team in the second or third game and beaten them, it might have improved. Everything was tried to bring it back up, weekends away, challenge matches during the week, they tried everything but confidence was gone very low.”
It’s been a busy year for Tuohy. As well as the demands of inter-county training, he had to get used to third level, as he began studying a combination of business and IT at NUI Galway.
It’s a course with a very high attrition rate and after just one year, he says about two in three of the students that began with him have dropped out, and while he’s fairly positive about the prospects the course offers, like many others, he feels its hard to balance studying with high-level hurling. “It can be hard find the time when you’re going up and down from training from January to April. There were four or five of us in Galway and we’d take turns driving but it’s severe coming back at 11 or 12 at night if you’ve college in the morning.”
As a goalkeeper, he studies other number ones fairly closely and he particularly admires Donal Óg Cusack. “He’s a class keeper. Just his standard of goalkeeping, he’s unbelievably consistent. He tries to find new ways to bring up the standard like that Waterford game when he tapped the ball back that was going over the bar. Not many goalies would think of it. Davy as well, he had a lot of heart and his shot-stopping was up there with the best. Brendan Cummins is very good as well.”
The U-21 management have been praised throughout the county and Tuohy has a positive assessment of what they’ve done and feels all involved have complemented each other.
“They’re very good. Everyone on the panel agrees that they all bring something different. Alan Dunne is a very good trainer. Cyril is a very hands-on coach. He’d pinpoint what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right. He’s very good in my view. John Minogue keeps discipline, he’s a good manager. Seán O’Halloran has been there for years and he’s a lot of experience. There’s something different from everyone.”
Next Sunday will be Tuohy’s first outing at Croke Park and he feels that Clare can’t afford to start with any lethargy this time.
“It’s a dangerous match but we’ve a bit of momentum going in, that’s one thing in our favour. In the matches so far, we’ve given away leads at the start – three or four-point leads. When Kilkenny teams have three or four-point leads, they don’t tend to lose them and a key thing for us is to go all guns blazing for the first 10 or 15 minutes, you have to put them on the back foot.”