Kevin Phelan came to work as a bank official in Clare a little over 30 years ago, firstly in Shannon before later moving to Ennis. He set up home in the county capital and has lived there since.
Working in a bank provided opportunities to meet people and this led to the formation of many friendships. Equally helpful was the fact that he is a lover of hurling, which isn’t surprising given that he comes from Kilkenny.
One of his many friends is former Clare hurler John Callinan, a solicitor based in Ennis. Scarcely a Monday goes by that they don’t meet at lunchtime.
While the state of the economy generally comes into their Monday discussion, the majority of the lunchtime discussion is about hurling, the previous weekend’s matches and the upcoming fixtures.
In recent weeks, Sunday’s U-21 hurling decider between Kilkenny and Clare has been discussed on quite a few occasions. Not alone is Kevin a staunch Kilkenny supporter well versed in all of his county’s teams, he has a great knowledge of Clare hurling and regularly attends Clare games, at both club and county levels.
“I have seen both of the Clare U-21s’ recent games and I have yet to see Kilkenny play in this campaign,” he admitted.
Clarecastle man Callinan is equally well positioned to talk about Sunday’s game. He was a member of the Clare panel that contested the provincial finals of 1972, 1974 and 1976. In a glittering career, which saw him honoured by the All-Star selectors on a couple of occasions and also by the Munster selectors for over a decade, he was ever present in the Clare senior squad, during which time he played in six Munster senior finals. He played a big part in the Banner County’s two league wins in 1977 and 1978, when they beat Kilkenny on both occasions.
“Having been involved in a quarter of our Munster final defeats at this level, it was great to witness the win in Dungarvan, particularly when Waterford beat us in ’74 and again in ’94. Yes, this was a good one to win,” he said this week.
So what is the secret of Kilkenny’s success? “Everybody is probably aware of the work that goes on and the structures that are there but it goes further than that. It is part of what the people are. I didn’t play at any worthwhile level but yet you can bask on the glory of all the things that happen. Everybody is part of it and that is part of it. There is an expectation there that when fellas play as kids, they can go on to have success, which is taken nearly in the same way as defeat is taken. It is part of the game. You have to win and you have to lose and it isn’t overblown like in a county that might only have success occasionally,” commented Phelan.
He expects Clare to win on Sunday. “I have been very impressed with them both against Limerick in the park [Cusack Park] and against Waterford and Galway. Maybe they have turned the perception of Clare hurling very much on the head, in that it’s the forwards that now look very good and the hurling looks very good. It will take a hell of a team to beat them,” he said.
Suggesting that this team will lead the way to another successful senior side might be a bit unfair to them, according to Callinan.
“Any one underage team is not going to bring a county along at senior inter-county level. Limerick won three U-21 titles and there was an expectation arising from that, which they never fulfilled. It’s great from a morale point of view. It’s great from a spirit point of view that when things are poor at senior level just at the moment that this team comes along and plays with such confidence and belief in themselves. Clearly, the desire of all of them is to wear the Clare jersey with such conviction. Their spirit is incredible. In various stages in the Waterford match and particularly in the Galway match, questions were asked and they kept bouncing back. They are an outstanding U-21 team.
“Before we start saying that all of the structures are fine, a level-headed approach is needed. In fairness, this team was in a bit of hard luck last year and the previous year were only beaten by a point by Cork, who had a decent team. It’s not just this team and this team cannot be expected to lift the senior scene on its own,” added the Clarecastle man.
“Any analysis now of the success of the ’90s would indicate that the clubs that didn’t have players involved in that team would seem to have got more out of it than the traditional clubs like Clarecastle, the ’Bridge, Wolfe Tones or Doora-Barefield. They probably embraced it and it’s not coincidence either that the 20-year-olds on this team were six, seven or eight when the team were at their highest. There is a connection, I think,” he went on.
While expecting Clare to win this one, Phelan has two concerns. “One is the number of goals they conceded the last day when there could have been another four or five and also the fact that it is in Croke Park against Kilkenny, many of whose players and their management team have been there before.”
He agrees that Kilkenny forward Ritchie Hogan is a class act but says he is the only one from this panel on the Kilkenny senior squad, which is unusual.
“He is a class act but Clare have at least one class act in their forward line as well, as we saw the last day,” he added before concluding by saying that “maybe it might be as draw and we might have a very long lunch break on September 14”.