Plenty of distractions have eased Brendan Bugler into retirement from the inter-county scene, while he also has come to enjoy being a spectator again, writes Owen Ryan.
MUCH has been written in the last couple of years about the plight of the sportsman whose career at the highest level finishes, leaving a gap in the structure of his life.
Brendan Bugler could be in that position, having invested thousands of hours into preparing for Clare hurling teams but, having drawn a line under it at the end of 2017, he is very happy in his own skin.
“I’m lucky this year, I’ve had a couple of distractions as well. I’ve thrown myself into a couple of little things and there’s a little nine-month-old as well who is keeping us fairly busy. We’re building a house too.
“This year I’ve been really busy, maybe next year, when I’ve a bit more time to sit down in the evenings, I might miss it a bit more. But this year I’m very, very content.”
He says that when he stopped playing for the county, he became a supporter again, without agony or regret.
“Funny enough, I’ve enjoyed it. A little bit different alright you know, 11 years going to championship games and you’re so familiar with the routine and the day of matches and whatnot. Obviously this year it’s a bit different. You’d miss playing the games and the crowd behind you, especially when you get on top and stuff like that. But I don’t miss the build-up, the nervous tension you’d have in your stomach and all that, I had years of it. I’m just enjoying getting up, having the breakfast, going to the match, meeting with a few mates or whatever it is. Clare FM brought me on board doing a bit on the minor matches. They gave us a great journey and were unlucky not to get to the Munster final.”
Following his decision to retire, Bugler penned an article for the AIB website, which was critical of Clare’s approach to last year’s Munster final.
He was echoing the views of the Banner County’s supporters, who were very frustrated with yet another disappointing performance but 12 months on, he feels important lessons have been learned.
“In my 11 years playing senior, it was the only time I got to tog out on Munster final day. You don’t get too many chances to win a Munster medal, so obviously it was disappointing. We could have played an awful lot better, I think. But I think we’ve learned from the mistakes and that’s the sign of a good management, if you learn from the mistakes from the year previous, you’ll go a long way.
“Even when we played Cork below in Cork, you could see we played well, they pulled away in the last 10 minutes (but) we created some really good chances and we didn’t allow them to dominate the puck-outs like they did last year. Credit has to go to management for that. We’ll all make mistakes, players and management, but the sign of a good management is they learn from their mistakes.”
Last year, Clare concentrated too much on Cork, particularly their puck-outs, but he can’t see that happening again.
“Too much emphasis might have been focused on Cork and counteracting Anthony Nash’s puck-out. That’s only a part of Cork’s game, it’s a big part of their game, but only a part of their game. There was probably too much emphasis put on that. I don’t think there will be this time, obviously you have to work on his puck-out but we won’t be giving them as much free possession as we did last year. They got 10 scores in the second half off a particular puck-out to a corner-back, who pucked it down the wing, bypassed our half-back line and then they got a break and a score out of it. That definitely won’t happen on Sunday.”
When the Banner prevailed over a highly-rated Tipperary side in Thurles, it gave the players an infusion of belief Bugler believes, which helped get them past Limerick.
“The real monkey off the back was to beat Tipp. I said it afterwards that the shackles were off and you could see that against Limerick. They were very nervous against Tipp, especially in the first half, unbelievably nervous, because of what was at stake; now the shackles are off. Now we’re going into a Munster final in a completely different situation to 12 months ago.”
Off-form for Clare in last year’s championship, John Conlon has been the county’s best player by some distance in 2018 and a strong contender for man of the match in each of the four championship games so far.
Bugler and Conlon are close, and the Whitegate man feels Clare are getting the best out of him by playing him in central positions.
“He’s a very, very good friend of mine. We’d be in contact at least once a week. I know all the training he’s doing this year, how he approached this year a little bit differently to last year. The guy who is honest and will do everything to the letter, he will always come out on top in the end and John typifies that.
“He’s an unbelievable trainer, he’ll do everything to the letter, whether it’s his diet, the work he does outside of the groups, his lifestyle. In an amateur game, he’s the ultimate professional. John would have been disappointed last year, very, very disappointed – taken off after 20 minutes against Tipperary, the last game of the year. John would have gone back to the drawing board, really, really analysed himself, asked what he could do this year so that doesn’t happen again. He actually came back a little bit later to training and his whole focus this year is on championship. Even though he played very well in the league, the league wasn’t the be all and end all whereas, other years, John might have put too much emphasis on the start of the year. Whatever he has done he has timed it right.”
In and out of form
Jack Browne and Pat O’Connor have also done very well and Bugler feels their approach to the game has made the difference.
“They’ve been exceptional in the last two games, absolutely exceptional. You know what, the honest guy, the hardworking guy, the guy that really puts his head down, works really hard on his game, is always training and never complains; he will always prevail, always come out on top. Pat and Jack typify that. They give you everything, I know from playing with them and playing against them at club level. They give you everything in training, they’re very tenacious, very tight, they’ve always been that way. They’re excelling, no doubt about it. But I think all the defenders have shown very well.”
One of the few disappointing aspects of Clare’s season so far has been the poor form of Conor McGrath, who is not expected to start on Sunday.
It’s amazing that a hurler as talented as McGrath cannot win a place on current form but Bugler feels he will play an important part for Clare before 2018 ends.
“In my eyes, Conor McGrath is still up there at the top few best players in Clare, definitely. I’ve seen Conor do stuff in training that I was just blown away by and I still think he has it, he just needs a couple of balls to fall his way. He nearly got a goal when he came on the last day. Sometimes everything can change in a couple of minutes. We’ve seen it with Podge this year, people might have said he might have been low in confidence, he comes on, plays an excellent 30 minutes. That’s in McGrath; if McGrath comes on, McGrath has the ability to absolutely destroy any opposition. I know he does, he’s going to play a massive part for Clare this year yet, an absolute massive part, in one of the games, it could be the next day or the one after, but Conor McGrath will make a massive difference in one of the games yet this year,” he says.
The speed of Cork is something Clare will need to counteract, Bugler says. “One thing they have all over their team is pace. Any good forward with pace, what they want is space basically. From a Clare point of view, we’ll have to come up with ways to cut out space for their forwards. They have pace, more pace than the Tipp forwards, I think they’ve more pace than the Limerick forwards as well as a whole. They’re very pacy around the middle of the field with Bill Cooper and Fitzgibbon. Their backs are pacy as well. There are only one or two you could say you could do for legs.”
In general he feels that the Clare attack can get the better of the Cork defence and he would like to see corner-back Sean O’Donoghue tested.
“He has legs, he is fast but he is a guy who we could ask questions of in the air. In any of the games I’ve seen, I haven’t really seen a 50-50 high ball where he has been maybe on his own at the edge of the square or something like that. Definitely their full-back line is an area that we can exploit.”
There is no doubt the county is getting behind Clare in a way that hasn’t been seen for years.
Last year, the Clare support for the Munster final was noticeable only by its absence but the last game against Limerick was a sell-out affair and there is massive demand for tickets for this Sunday. Bugler feels the support is making a difference.
“Any time the Clare supporters are behind the team, the team will always, always, always respond to that. If you’re playing a championship game in Cusack Park, you’re going to have a massive Clare following behind the team. That’s why we are seeing the team respond. The last day you heard My Lovely Rose of Clare, you even heard it in Thurles being sang during the game. For a player, that’s phenomenal.
“Last year, out on the field in the Munster final against Cork in Thurles, seeing the Cork crowd outnumber us eight to one, as a player – now I wasn’t playing, I was on the bench – but it was disheartening.
“I know from playing down the years that if we have a massive Clare crowd behind us, they drive us over the line, whatever it is about us. The Clare supporters, when we’re going well, they are the best supporters, I’d include any county in that. We have fantastic supporters but we just want to see them out supporting the lads every day.”