The Clare team that won the 1997 All-Ireland final will be celebrated in Croke Park this Sunday. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh recalls a success that came at the height of hurling’s Revolution Years when the Banner County shook up the world, on and off the field.
IT’S a cliché to say that hindsight is 20/20 vision, but looking back on things from a remove of 20 years it’s true to say that 1997 was the apex of the Revolution Years – the title of the book written by celebrated hurling commentator Denis Walsh that captured a remarkable decade of change in the game.
For a host of reasons, it was always going to be a huge hurling year. For the bluebloods like Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny who agitated against change because they considered All- Irelands to be their birthright. They wanted to restore the old order.
For the new order of Offaly, Clare and Wexford who had won the three previous All-Irelands, it was about keeping blueblood tradition, culture and old Liam McCarthy lineage in check and boxed away for another year at least.
Clare would be the team to do that. They had to be the team.
And, within that new order, no team had more motivation than Clare. The Munster and All-Ireland titles had been taken away from them with Ciaran Carey’s wondrous flash of the ash into the Caherdavin End goal in the Gaelic Grounds. 1997 would be about exorcising the demons from that day.
After taking an Autumn sabbatical, during which time he handed team management affairs over to Mike McNamara and Clare won the Oireachtas title by beating Kilkenny in Cusack Park, Ger Loughnane came back invigorated and preaching another year to September.
“Mick O’Dwyer had once said that any team can win an All-Ireland but to win two All-Irelands you need a great team,” was one of his quotes that year. That’s what Loughnane expected, and while he didn’t say it early on in the year, he wanted Tipperary along the way. Clare as a county did, because they’d heard rumblings from across the Scariff Martyrs bridge in Killaloe that ’95 hadn’t included a victory over Tipperary, so then….
Fate was to throw Clare and Tipperary together twice and the plotlines that developed in both games would have matched anything a paid-up member of a script-writing guild could cough out of a word processor.
Then there was the action off the field – it was equally as entertaining as the controversy that wrapped itself around some of the personalities involved.
LEN Gaynor was above controversy, but part of the intriguing plot nonetheless. Manager of Tipperary and the former manager of Clare who had given five of the team that started both the Munster and All-Ireland finals (Brian Lohan, Sean McMahon, Liam Doyle, Fergie Tuohy, PJ O’Connell) their first championship starts and made Anthony Daly captain.
Loughnane had also served with Gaynor for a year; Mike McNamara had served with him for a week. “I was appointed with Len Gaynor for the ’94 season. I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction of the team.” He walked. There were plots within plots, but Gaynor never courted it
For him it was just about hurling. To this day when he thinks of hurling, Tipp comes first, but Clare loomed very large too. He went to Flannan’s as a boarder where hurling was the escape and when they escaped it was mostly to Cusack Park to see Clare hurling, whether it was club or county.
“I always thought Clare had a good style – the only thing they seemed to lack was a belief in themselves,” he said.
He tried to bring that missing link to Clare when he first came among the senior team in 1990. “It was the indoctrination of the self-belief that they could do it. We had it in Tipperary always and still have it. I started trying to bring it to Clare.”
To a large extent, it was mission accomplished, albeit there were no medals or cups to show for his missionary zeal. Beating Limerick and Cork in ’93 was certainly a new dawn for Clare hurling and even though Tipperary was the darkest hour, Len has always accentuated the positive he took from a 3-28 to 2-12 defeat.
“The hour after that game was nearly our greatest hour. We rallied the troops, we really got to them in the dressing room, explained a few things to them and started the process of rehabilitation. Within 11 months we had beaten Tipperary in the championship. It was a huge mental leap for Clare hurling.”
That day some Tipperary supporter came up to Gaynor and called him a traitor. “I remember it distinctly because I was alongside Len when it happened. The two of them nearly came to blows. Len was shouting back he was no traitor,” recalled Anthony Daly.
The next time Gaynor and Daly were involved in a Clare/Tipperary game, things had changed. Tipperary came to Cusack Park for a league game in ’97 and a section of the Clare crowd booed Tipperary manager Gaynor, who had an altercation with Daly on the field.
I was waving my fist at him, telling him to get off the ******* field. And he was waving his fist back,” recounted Daly.
They were still great friends though, but this was hurling. This was Clare v Tipp. It was a tribal thing as the quotes that started flying during Munster final week showed.
“Maybe it’s their tradition. They’ve that, they are….well, I won’t say arrogant, but let’s face it, they’re very self-assured about themselves and being Tipperary people. Their hurling is the best kind of hurling and they are the Premier County and the home of hurling and all that,” said Anthony Daly.
Ger Loughane went further: “Tipperary will look down on Clare. That’s the way it always has been. They look on 1995 as Clare having won an All-Ireland without beating them and until that happens they won’t recognize us. From our perspective, there is an awful lot to prove on Sunday.”
The hurling had a lot to live up to, while the controversy was only starting.
CLARE and Tipperary had met in four Munster finals before 1997, with Tipperary winning them all – 1899, 1930, ’67 and ’93. The aggregate score over the four games was 18-59 to Tipperary, 6-34 to Clare, a gap of 12-25. It was more than winning a Munster final. It was about beating Tipperary.
“It was a massive game and Clare were at the height of their powers. There was tension in the air that day,” remembered Len Gaynor.
Seconds before the throw-in he moved up along the sideline and summoned Philip O’Dwyer for a few words; on his way to the line O’Dwyer was stalked by his marker Michael O’Halloran; Gaynor tried to push O’Halloran away, but he wasn’t for moving. Tension alright.
“Clare were on fire – they started very fast and very furious and raced into the lead,” adds Gaynor. Clare led 0-10 to 0-2, playing what Gaynor describes as “awesome hurling”, but early in the second half, it was back to a level game.
“They had wind advantage,” recalled Loughnane. “The Tipperary supporters were singing Slievenamon. I leapt out onto the pitch. I asked the players if they heard that. I asked them if they wanted to go home with that song in their ears.”
The answer came when Sean McMahon knocked over a long-range free. David Forde goaled; John Leahy missed his goal chance and Clare got home by two and the pot was soon stirring again.
“For every Clare person who never saw a Clare side beat Tipperary in a Munster final it was for them today,” said Loughnane.
“This Clare team needed to do that to earn respect. We needed to beat Tipp. You can win all the cups you like, but a team must win the respect of its people to be truly great and we did that.”
Meanwhile, Anthony Daly famously remarked with Munster cup in hand: “Our mission was to show that we’re no longer the whipping boys of Munster.”
At once a firestorm was coming down the tracks, and Clare v Tipperary in an All-Ireland final.
LIZ Howard was in first with her programme notes before the Munster Under 21 finals in Thurles, lowering her blade on Anthony Daly and others. She said the reference to whipping boys “doesn’t do you justice” and “was unworthy on a victory podium and reflected unfairly on hurling followers”.
“I could not understand the venom regarding Tipp,” she added. “What arrogance?”
A few weeks later Ger Loughnane joined the debate after incurring Howard’s wrath when attending the All-Ireland quarter-final between Kilkenny and Galway in Thurles. His contribution came with a famous open letter to The Clare Champion.
“It was with great sadness I learned of your remarks regarding Anthony Daly’s speech,” he said. “I was outraged that a player I admire so much could be maligned for making a speech that I wished I could have made myself. Anthony Daly has represented the people of Clare with the greatest dignity.”
Things were coming to the boil everywhere. Before the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, Loughnane riled Kilkenny supporters by suggesting in a Clare FM interview that DJ Carey was only as good as the ball he got. It was hardly a diplomatic incident, but Kilkenny felt aggrieved.
Wexford felt something stronger after Loughnane backed Tipperary to beat them in the second All-Ireland semi-final. “The biggest mistake you could make is to think that rough-house tactics would work against Tipp,” he said.
Clare’s metamorphosis from ‘People’s Champions’ to public enemies had started, but it was of little concern to players or management. They had an All-Ireland to win.
“When we got to the final, we were confident that we’d be capable of winning because Tipperary are always that way,” said Len Gaynor.
“At half-time we were four up, but four points is nothing and to me it was the same as if it was a drawn match. I felt we were in a strong position to go ahead and win.”
Then came Clare’s surge – Liam Doyle’s point seconds into the second half had them away and they turned a four-point deficit into a five-point lead with 14 minutes remaining. Liam Cahill goaled to peg it back to one point with eight minutes remaining; Eugene O’Neill’s goal put Tipperary a point ahead.
“It came back off the crossbar from a Tommy Dunne 65,” recalled Brian Lohan, “and I was in prime position to catch it, but somehow it looped up over me in an arc. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would have got it. It was a freak goal.”
“What really beat us,” said Len, “was Davy Fitzgerald’s quick puck out to Ollie Baker and it went straight over the bar. It was so quick that the cameras didn’t even pick it up.
“Immediately from being a point up we were gone back to level again with two pucks of the ball. That was the killer blow, that our players weren’t alert enough to stop that quick puck out.
“That was where we lost. It was that crucial moment when we got that goal our lads got a little bit too excited and didn’t look at the puck out.”
Then Jamesie O’Connor scored, but Gaynor still remained positive. “I didn’t think it was gone, there was still time and Leahy got his chance…..
“If it was anyone else got the chance and missed we’d be saying ‘if Leahy got it he’d score it’. But it didn’t turn out that way – he got the chance and he didn’t score it.
“It was a marvellous chance, but it wasn’t his best year in the blue and gold. He missed one in the Munster final and when that opportunity came his way, maybe his confidence wasn’t as high as it should be. He should have been able to put it away.”
“I was sure he was going to go for a point,” recalled Brian Lohan. “He had to do it. He was between the 14 and the 21, but I knew he was going for a goal when he drove the ball under my hurley. When it hit the ground first I knew it was going to be saved – there was little bit of grass there and it took the sting off it.
“Meeting him afterwards I knew he went for a goal because Tipperary didn’t have the appetite for a replay. We were better than them and they had to win it there and then, because they wouldn’t have won the replay.”
Fitzgerald saved. Anthony Daly cleared, the whistle sounded and in the words of Con Houlihan in The Sunday World Clare were “the most deserving champions of all time”.