Brian Lohan has introduced ten new players to the Clare hurling squad for 2023 and points to the ambition among the new recruits and the established stars as they bid to take county seniors to the next level and win trophies, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh
It’s hard to believe that it’s now a quarter of a century since one of the greatest examples of the real difference between league and championship was provided by a Clare team that had current manager Brian Lohan as a totem.
It was 1998, when the great team that Ger Loughnane built rocked down to Semple Stadium for a joust with Cork in the National League semi-final on the first Sunday in May. Summertime had just kicked in and Clare had their chance to book a final place against Waterford.
It was 20 years since the team that Ger himself was part of won the league for the second successive year — why not mark those two decades by getting their hands on the trophy once more to sit alongside the Munster and All-Ireland titles of the previous year?
Alas, it wasn’t to be as a young Cork team managed by Jimmy Barry Murphy trimmed them by 2-15 to 0-10 and thought they had a team again, especially when they backed it up by beating Waterford in the final.
Meanwhile, it was a case of the Poor Clares — they looked like a busted flush and Ger Loughnane wasn’t about to put those, who suspected that the tough campaigns had taken their toll, to right and admit the truth.
“You would have to be a fool not to see that the edge has gone off our players,” bemoaned Loughnane. “Clare were miles off the pace of the game. There was no position on the field you could say we controlled and that is very worrying,” he added.
Instead, it was just a ruse — the truth lay in the fact that Clare didn’t need to take the league seriously and that it didn’t matter to them and that everything was geared towards the Munster semi-final against Cork in June, even when they met in that league semi-final, and well before that in the round-robin section of the competition.
The reason for this, of course, was as two-time Munster and All-Ireland champions since 1995 with such success at their back, they could show such indifference to the league. But this luxury that was afforded to championship-winning teams isn’t there for those teams trying to get to that level.
You could say that 25 years on from 1998 that the Clare team are in that bracket — on their way up and facing into a campaign that will bring hope and confidence that they can take the next step in 2023.
And, while the grand ambition is all about hitting the ground running come April 23 when the championship starts against Tipperary, the importance of the league to Clare cannot be underscored, when one thing for certain is that there’ll be no handbrakes pulled like there was before.
Yes, it’s important in terms of team development as Brian Lohan and his management team will look to unearth a few diamonds for later on in the year, but he freely admits that it’s a balancing act that will be ultimately guided by the simple philosophy of winning matches.
“You want to be playing well and you want to be winning matches,” he deadpans. “You want to try and expand your panel, you want to try and give people game time. You have a good panel there and everyone wants to play, but at the same time you’re under pressure to win and you have to trade-off between the development of all the players on the panel and winning matches.
“The aim is to develop as many players as we can, but at the same time try to win matches, because at the end of the day it’s about winning matches. You only really enjoy it when you’re winning and it’s not much fun when you’re losing.”
Against the backdrop of this reality, proof that Lohan is willing to experiment along the way can be gleaned from the fact that there are ten newcomers to the panel this year, with an infusion of youth provided with the introduction of players like Oran Cahill, Brandon O’Connell, Oisín O’Donnell, Jack Kirwan, Conor Leen, Ian McNamara, John Conneally and Gearóid O’Grady.
The return, meanwhile, of 2013 All-Ireland winner Séadna Morey to the squad and the availability of the fully fit players like Mark Rodgers [who only returned at the tail end of last year’s campaign] and Aidan McCarthy represent huge boosts.
“We have got an ambitious group,” says Lohan. “They have always been ambitious. We have ten new guys on the panel this year and they are all ambitious guys and they want to drive this thing forward. They want to get in there and work hard and get the expertise that is there and want to represent their county and their clubs as best they can within that county system.
“You have to make decisions along the way, you have to make calls. At the back of all this is a panel of 40 individuals who are working really hard and all want the same thing. We try and pick the form players in the county. Your panel of players is the best guys that are performing for their clubs; the best guys from the previous year and that’s the way that inter-county is now, it’s a very tough business.
“They all want to play; they all want to win; they all want to represent the county as well as they possibly can and you’re trying to be fair to everyone that’s there, but at the same time being conscious that we need a stronger panel than what we had last year.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We are trying to develop that panel and trying to give new guys a chance and to be fair to guys that are on the panel for a while. It can be a delicate balance but it’s just what you have to do,” he adds.
The fact that the opening game of the campaign this Sunday is against perceived minnows Westmeath in Cusack Park, means that Lohan might be able to mix it up a little bit from the off, but reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions Limerick the following week in the Gaelic Grounds and another away day against Wexford at the end of the month mean that the heavier hitters will be coming thick and fast.
By then the championship will only be eight weeks away and the team will be fashioned more and more like the championship starting 15 that will be trying to muster up as hostile a reception as possible when Tipperary come to the Cusack cauldron on the last Sunday in April.
“We’re trying to improve from where we were last year,” says Lohan of the year ahead, “that the team will get better and try add a little bit more, a little bit more expertise and experience and try and get better. That’s the aim.
“It takes a bit of time — every team wants to have success and everyone that gets involved in a team wants to have success straight away, but it just doesn’t happen that way. The only way of trying to get that success is to work a bit harder and that’s what fellas are trying to do. They’re working harder and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
“There are 14 years of work that goes into any one of those individuals and we’re just trying to carry that on and add a bit more expertise and knowledge in some cases and trying to put our best foot forward with all the players that we have,” he adds.
If everyone stays fit, it looks like the strongest set of players that Lohan et al have had at their disposal in what will be their fourth year in charge.
Munster finalists, All-Ireland semi-finalists and All-Stars times three thanks to Tony Kelly, David Fitzgerald and Shane O’Donnell meant 2022 was a year of real progress.
Going higher again will be the goal for 2023.
That means trophies, and not just All-Star statuettes, however much a ringing endorsement of form and achievement those personal accolades are.