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Leo O Connor, the manager of the Offaly minor team, at work in The Clare Champion ahead of their All-Ireland semi final clash with Clare in Thurles on Friday evening. Photograph by John Kelly

Leo championing the Faithful ahead of Clare semi-final clash


Leo O’Connor has certainly become accustomed to rolling with the punches these past few weeks as Clare’s hurling re-emergence at all levels began to build momentum.

Working as a Business Development Manager for The Clare Champion, the Limerick native, and former player as well as former minor and U-21 manager has faced his fair share of banter as the Shannonside derby that extended to four competitive clashes in 2022 reached fever pitch with the recent Munster Final clash.

With that rivalry put on hold (temporarily at least), there is no let-up for O’Connor though as having been Offaly minor manager for the past three seasons, there was almost a sense of inevitability when Clare were the ones to come through the quarter-final qualifiers to face the Leinster champions at the All-Ireland Minor Semi-Final stage in Thurles this evening (7.30pm).

Before matters get serious on Friday though, the Claughan clubman, who actually played against Offaly in Limerick’s ill-fated 1994 All-Ireland senior decider, can see the humorous side of his current plight.

“A Limerick man living in Tipperary, working in Clare and training Offaly, you couldn’t make it up.

“I’ll be honest if you said to me at the start of the year that Clare and Offaly would end up playing each other in an All-Ireland Minor Hurling Semi-Final, I’d have said getting the six winning numbers for the lotto would have been easier.

“But it’s brilliant for both counties and working in Clare, it’s obvious that the county are on the crest of a wave with the senior and minor hurlers as well as the Under 20s who were barely beaten by Limerick and perhaps if they had Shane Meehan that night, it might have been a different story.

“So Clare have dramatically improved over the past 12 to 18 months and it’s a credit to the county the way things have been turned around.

“Brian Lohan has done a superb job at senior level and equally Brian O’Connell at minor level and it’s something that they’ve built upon. There’s no doubt that the Clare supporters, as I saw first-hand below in Thurles at the Munster Final, have definitely rowed in behind the senior hurling team.

“And that’s not even mentioning the senior footballers, with Colm Collins getting the Banner to the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals against the big boys.”

Offaly are also bidding to get back as a top tier county, with the redevelopment of their underage structure already paying dividends as following a first Leinster Minor Final appearance in 18 years in 2020, O’Connor’s side finally bridged a 22-year gap to their last provincial success when brushing aside the challenge of Laois on away soil by 0-21 to 0-13.

“Offaly have a very good county board as Michael Duignan has brought a freshness to the whole thing” continued O’Connor.

“Tommy Byrne and Martin Cashin were the men that initially brought me up there but in terms of freshness and a youthfulness attached to the county board, it’s all really positive so far.

“However, the thing now is that they’ve got to be a little bit patient. After all, in the last three years they’ve had good minor teams and even the 2019 team which I started coaching, there’s three or four of them like Jack Screeney that have already made their way onto the senior panel.

“So patience is required to get two or three off each minor team and perhaps four or five off this year’s panel and build gradually over the next four or five years.

“I mean Limerick were in a similar situation as before 2018’s breakthrough, it was 1973 since the previous All-Ireland but they built it up from underage level and are now reaping the benefits.

“Now it’s not easy as everyone knows, it’s about about stepping stones.”

The only downside to Offaly’s Leinster triumph is that the final was in mid-May so while Clare have been regularly tested throughout an intensive seven match schedule, this will be O’Connor and Co’s first competitive outing in five weeks.

“When you get to this stage of the competition, you’ve no choice, but everything that’s put in front of us in Offaly we’ll take it. I mean we’ll play on a Wednesday morning at 8am if they wanted to!

“So have Clare the edge on momentum or do we have the greater freshness? It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other to be honest. Preferably we’d love to have had a competitive game two weeks out from Friday like Clare did but we didn’t so we’re taking on a Clare team that have gained tremendous experience over those seven matches.

“Now that experience may not be fully beneficial until they reach Under 20 or senior perhaps but at the same time you can’t buy that experience and it’s definitely a major positive for Clare GAA.”

Experience is one thing but once perennial contenders Galway and Tipperary were paired together at the penultimate stage, the carrot of a rare All-Ireland Final appearance is just too juicy to pass up on either side of the Clare and Offaly divide.

“For us it’s a big step up but the lads have been learning as they go along. This team got to a Tony Forristal Final and were beaten by Tipperary so there has been a little bit of success and prestige attached to this team the whole way up and they’ve worked really, really hard as a bunch of players.

“For Clare too, this hasn’t come out of nowhere. You can see the work that Kieran McDermott and others have done with the underage academy as it’s beginning to reap the benefits.

“It may be a little sooner than they thought but when you’ve the likes of Donal Moloney, Cyril Lyons and Brian O’Connell involved, it’s a set-up that the players can really buy into and that energy has been evident all year.

“Certainly Clare will pose a formidable challenge for us on Friday night and it’s just one of those unique occasions that for whoever wins will be a massive boost for their county.

“It’s a game for these players to really savour, enjoy the occasion and ultimately may the best team win.”

Monday’s office dynamic in The Clare Champion depends on it.

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