The Clare Junior Camogie team will take to the hallowed turf of Croke Park on Sunday bidding to complete a remarkable journey that has seen them struggle to field teams to now contesting an All-Ireland Premier Junior Camogie Final. Eoin Brennan spoke with mentor Ann-Marie McGann who revived the county’s second team in 2016 and has been driving it ever since.
Cusack Park would have been a major dream when AnnMarie McGann first initiated the re-ignition of a second county team back in 2016.
It has been tried and failed before in different guises, most prominently when Clare’s flagship side finally made the breakthrough from junior level themselves after a series of heartbreaking final defeats in 2008.
Making up for lost time, the decision was made to catapult Clare up to senior for 2009 while also entering a second team at intermediate level. It was an undertaking that not only drained resources but the management too under Bertie Sherlock who simply couldn’t stretch themselves to fully commit to both entities.
There was a junior revival midway through the last decade but in 2016, McGann set the ball rolling which won’t stop until it reaches Jones Road this Sunday.
Of course, in keeping with previous attempts it was far from plain-sailing as the stigma of being a junior player still resonated in players heads throughout the county.
“We kind of thought of all those players that might never get to wear the Clare senior jersey. That’s not to be disrespectful to anyone but those that may not make a county senior team but are very good club players and deserve a chance to represent their county.
“Initially it was hard to get the word out as the focus was predominantly on senior and people just perhaps didn’t see the value of it.
“I mean second teams had been tried before at intermediate and junior level but in order to keep it going, it kind of descended into a club set-up of ringing players and asking if someone’s sister was available to tog out.
“So that’s where the negativity probably started with the second team that it wasn’t professional and just a bit of a laugh.
“That stigma was still there when we came in and it was very hard to break that mentality that we weren’t necessarily looking for junior players, we were looking for junior, intermediate and senior club players who would view this as a stepping stone to senior or else just realistically won’t ever make that senior set-up.
“It was a quality player that we were looking for and while it took time, we’ve obviously changed that culture thankfully.”
Along with a backroom team of Tim McGrath, Anne McMahon, Trevor White and Anne Marsh, baby steps led to an ever-increasing progression through the ranks, with a professional set-up and more and more perks making it a much more attractive prospect.
However, the final piece of the jigsaw was progression on the field, with an All-Ireland Premier Junior Semi-Final defeat to Kerry in Cusack Park in 2019 being the catalyst to push on for 2020. That was until COVID intervened…
“I’ll never forget having to tell the players in the stand in Clarecastle that the Camogie Association had made the decision not to include second teams in the All-Ireland Championships. They were devastated and rightly so because I believed that we were destined for Croke Park that year.
“In hindsight though, I think after the COVID thing, there was an extra determination from everyone, both players and management. We had been tipping along okay and winning matches and getting to semi-finals but no further than that.
“So after being denied in that manner, the players were adamant that we needed to drive this on.”
A second All-Ireland Semi-Final reverse to Armagh in 2021 was offset by a new combined senior and junior set-up under John Carmody and Conor Dolan in 2022, an initiative to create a conveyor belt of talent from minor to senior.
“Working together has undoubtedly been a benefit, girls are training with senior players and you can only improve and develop as a player in any sport by playing with or against better players.
We’ve a top-class strength and conditioning coach in Jamie Fitzgibbon, we get fed after every training now and have gym and pool sessions and that has all massively helped to get to where we are now I suppose.
“There’s such a big gap for a minor player of a county with just 26 or 28 clubs to make the leap to senior. We’ve a small entity compared to Cork, Galway and Tipp who have a huge number of cubs and players to filter into their county set-ups.
“So this is now used as a stepping stone from minor to senior. We have a number of players who have made it onto the senior panel this year from last year’s junior panel and a number of more players from this years junior panel that will be making that step in the next year or two.”
All those ingredients combined to finally secure the second team’s first piece of championship silverware when seeing off Waterford to soar to a first Munster Junior title in 17 years last summer.
“I think winning that provincial Junior Championship last year was a big stepping stone because that was the first piece of silverware that this team had garnered.
“It made the set-up more prestigious and I think once you get one piece of silverware, things start to roll and people start to get behind you.
“This year’s National League win was fantastic and now playing in an All-Ireland Final in Croke Park is another major stepping stone. Whatever will be, will be on the day but merely getting a Clare Camogie team there for the first time since 2008 is a massive achievement in itself and I think winning last year’s Munster title was the real start of that cycle.”
Now only 60 minutes away from an All-Ireland title, McGann is eager to thank all those that shared this remarkable journey and helped this current team get to Croke Park.
“When you look back to 2016 when we started off, all those girls that came in and all the management that got involved, everyone really that saw value in it, we wouldn’t have gotten to Croke Park without their contribution so they definitely shouldn’t be forgotten in the progression of this panel.
“When we started this we had nothing so when you see that extra ten or twenty per cent put into this junior panel over the last two years, it’s remarkable. Small things really, a bit of money, a bit of cohesion, a bit of forward-thinking between the county boards goes a long way.
“That backing from everyone over the past year or two has gotten us to Croke Park and probably if we had gotten this kind of backing earlier, we might have been in Croke Park earlier at different stages over the last five years.
However, at least it has happened now, it’s great to see that forward-thinking now that everyone is pulling together and singing off the same hymnsheet.
With one All-Ireland crown already in the bag following the Under 16’s gritty final victory over Antrim last Saturday in Nowlan Park, McGann is just as determined that the junior follows suit in what is an unprecedented opportunity.
“To have two Clare teams contesting All-Ireland Finals is phenomenal. We have been inspired by the Under 16’s win and we want to do likewise in Croke Park on Sunday. We want to put on the best show possible and when you look back on 2008 which was the last time that a Clare team took to the field in Croke Park, there was a magnificent team then and we have another one now representing the county and hopefully getting over the line on Sunday.
“We have suffered enough heartbreak so now that we’re finally in an All-Ireland Final, we really want to grasp this opportunity. I’m sure Tipp will be the very same as getting to Croke Park for any player at any level is a fantastic achievement.
“We don’t get there very often clearly so we have to take the bull by the horns.”
It’s been some adventure but victory on Sunday would complete a perfect final chapter.