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John Callinan who was among three Clare players honoured in an ‘80s team before the 2013 All-Ireland senior hurling final. Photograph by John Kelly

Banner legend says Clare must play the men not the shirt

Two-time All-Star John Callinan thinks that the key to success on Sunday is matching Kilkenny’s legendary physicality and then letting Clare’s speed take over.

BACK in 2018 Justin McCarthy gave a stirring speech at Clare County Council headquarters in Ennis when the Clare team he coached to beat Kilkenny in the National League finals of 1977 and ’78 were accorded a civic reception.

In it, he told a story about a fellow countyman of his — the greatest to ever wear the jersey in fact — being behind the goal at one of the finals telling a Kilkenny selector what needed to be done to beat Clare.

The moral of the story was that the heavyweights wanted to keep things to themselves — interlopers upsetting the status quo were allowed or wanted.

That attitude mightn’t have gone away completely, but it has been blown away over the past 40 or so years with the successes of Galway, Offaly, Clare, Wexford and Limerick the old status quo is dead and gone.

Still, however, there’s something about beating Kilkenny. Playing them is different; beating them is better.

Clare should know why it’s different, because it’s so hard done.

“I remember the ’97 semi-final,” says former Clare great John Callinan, “and being up in the stand and we were 11 points up and I was pinching myself — ‘can a Clare team be 11 points up on a Kilkenny team in an All-Ireland semi-final’. To us they had been the standard-bearer, they always are,” he adds.

Callinan was part of a Clare team that had no problem beating Kilkenny — in big league days in Tulla when long-serving Kilkenny secretary Paddy Grace famously said “Ah to hell with it, give them the two points in Tulla and think of the money we will save; in Nowlan Park; in Semple Stadium in those league finals, but the great pity was that they never got to play them in the championship.

“To us Kilkenny were a great scalp,” remembers Callinan, “You were beating the best when you beat Kilkenny and that’s the way we looked on it in those league finals and it was huge to beat them.”

It always is and that’s why it will be this Saturday, even if Clare are going in against a Kilkenny team not looked upon as being worthy when measured up against their illustrious predecessors, even though they’re three-in-a-row Leinster champions.

“It’s a bit dangerous to say it, but whatever about the quality of the Kilkenny players,” says Callinan, “there is one given and that is it’s all out, massive effort, 100 per cent work and because of their DNA they’ll never believe that they’re not the favourites.

“Nothing changes with Kilkenny, with a good Kilkenny team or what’s perceived to be a bad Kilkenny team, the workrate, the effort, the commitment and the physicality is going to be there. It doesn’t matter how good you are — if you don’t match that, you will be done, you won’t beat them. It’s a huge challenge,” he adds.

Meeting that challenge head-on that will be Clare’s greatest test, but it’s something that Callinan firmly believes Brian Lohan’s charges are made for, such has been the physicality and work ethic they’ve brought to this year’s championship.

He even goes so far as to call it Kilkenny-esque; a team built in Kilkenny’s image.

“I have likened the way we have played to the Kilkenny way,” he admits. “Brian Lohan has rolled back our style from being almost too sophisticated to a simpler man-on-man game, with massive work ethic.

“I wouldn’t say that Brian was necessarily saying we’re going to play the Kilkenny way, but the attraction of the Munster final was there were a lot of man-to-man battles and contests which is what the spectators want. They don’t want process and they don’t want too much sophistication. They want what we got.”

Now, it’s to give it again, with interest and the gates of All-Ireland final day will be thrown open to Clare for the first time in nine years.

“It’s going to be huge,” says Callinan. “I think it is essential that our lads play the men rather than the jersey and not get too hung up on the jersey. They will play the jersey.

“They have the ability. I think we will match them physically and I’d like to think that the speed we have will win it for us. We have speed; we have real speed — like Tony Kelly, David Fitzgerald, Ryan Taylor and Shane O’Donnell, with maybe Aidan McCarthy to come in. That unnerves opposition backs. I hope that’s what will do it and win it. I think it will.”

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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