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Ger O'Loughlin during the Guinness All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Semi-Final match between Clare and Offaly at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

‘Sparrow’ at the heart of it when Clare took flight

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ON THE week of the 1995 Munster Final a flag pole was planted on Dr Tommy Daly’s grave on the hill of Tulla — it wasn’t windswept that week because it was a long, hot and benign summer like it was 40 years earlier when Clare and Limerick also crossed sticks in the provincial final.

Still, there’s always enough of a wind on that hill for flags to flutter and so it was that the saffron and blue did its thing ahead of the big game. Many times it had been planted, in hope and expectation and a nod to the ‘greatest goal man to ever clutch a ball’, that he might send something Clare’s way.

In ’55 until Dermot Kelly took a wrecking ball to Clare history; in ’67 when they came again; on four separate final occasions in the 1970s and all the way to 1995 when the habit of hurling lifetimes wasn’t about to be broken. In hope and expectation… that it would be different this time. It was, and the course of hurling history reached a turn on the road.

“Winning the Munster Final that year was the monkey off the back for me,” recalls Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin.

“It was unbelievable. Psychologically it was a totally uplifting experience and it brought everything together on a number of levels.”

The Clarecastle man was a totemic figure in Clare’s rise — not the larger-than-life presence like his clubmate and captain Anthony Daly; neither was he the belligerent force and enforcer that was current manager Brian Lohan, nor a forward like Jamesie O’Connor who was perpetual motion, but without ‘The Sparrow’ there would have been no 1995.

Two years previously he wasn’t even on the Clare squad drawn up for the championship by manager Len Gaynor and his inter-county days that stretched back to 1987 when Clare contested a National League final could have been over.

“In ’93 I was only on the periphery and wasn’t playing well,” he admits, “and we took some heavy defeats and needless to say, your morale takes a fair battering and interest wise it’s hard to take. Afterwards they had a rethink about the whole panel and a few were let go. I was one of them.

“I went back to my club — in one way, I felt my time was up. I had given it my all and wasn’t involved in a panel that wasn’t going to go too far anyway. I said, ‘whatever few years I have left I’ll go back to the club and see how I get on’.”

He got on well, with some sparkling displays for Clarecastle prompting Clare Champion journalist Seamus Hayes to muse that, “a recall would surely benefit the team”.

“Enda O’Connor was part of the management,” remembers O’Loughlin, “and he called to the house in Clarecastle one evening and said ‘we have some injury issues, do you fancy coming back’.

“I didn’t respond straight away and said ‘let me have a think about it’. I remember saying it to my dad and he said, ‘listen you’ll have plenty time sitting on the sideline, go back and give it a go’. On those words I did.”

The rest is history — he was sprung from the bench for his injured clubmate Alan Neville minutes into the championship opener against Limerick, hit 1-5 in a man-on-the-match display and overnight Clare were championship contenders once more.

“It was just one of those days,” he says. “I didn’t think they’d be coming to me in the dugout when Nev got injured. That year you could see a little spark. You could see something happening.”

The spark that finally caught fire two years after, when O’Loughlin was a key figure once more — on the field, and off it. It was 27 years ago this weekend, when he was central to new manager Ger Loughnane’s first-ever dummy team. He wasn’t named in the starting 15, but took his place on the match-day team with 18 on his back as Eamonn Taaffe dropped out.

“It was a new set-up and you had to see some light at the end of the tunnel by the time the year was over,” he says.

“If we didn’t produce the goods in ’95 it would have been very difficult to have been optimistic about the future.

“Ger Loughnane put a high intensity in place and a ruthlessness in place that you either bought into or if you didn’t you weren’t going to last.

“Your mind or your body wouldn’t have allowed you stay with it. That was pretty new. He had that mental fortitude himself that drove everything.”

Drove them to beat Cork on that first day in a game that looked lost on a number of occasions — O’Loughlin was top-scorer with 1-3, while his goal seven minutes from time pulled Clare back from the brink before they somehow got over the line in a frenetic finale.

It turned the county’s fortunes on their head, because it teed up Clare’s third Munster final in as many years — a final that was always going to be different from what went before in 1993 and ’94.

“Playing Limerick in ’95,” remembers O’Loughlin, “we knew, there was no way as far as we were concerned going down that we were going to be beaten. It’s hard to believe, but we did feel that if there was ever going to be a day it was going to be against Limerick in Thurles that day. It was a case of just, ‘look it, don’t let today pass us’. Everyone on the bus going that day had that feeling — ‘today is going to be the day’.”

That it was, meant — and it’s no exaggeration to say — that Clare hurling has never been the same since. That’s what a first Munster title in 63 years did for the county, just as a first All-Ireland in 81 years did even more.

O’Loughlin hit 3-6 from play that year en route to Munster and All-Ireland medals as well as All-Star recognition — not a bad haul for someone who two years previously thought his inter-county career was over at 25, and had no real problem with it being over.

A personal story and a Clare story that was pock-marked by a couple of memorable days out against Limerick, something that O’Loughlin and all of Clare hopes will repeat itself in the first Munster final meeting between the sides since 1995.

The former Clare manager is well placed to give a verdict — he knows Limerick hurling more than most having guided Adare to a hat-trick of county senior titles, before winning another with Kilmallock, adding a Munster title and going all the way to the All-Ireland final on St Patrick’s Day.

“This will be the big test,” he says of the challenge. “Limerick have the quality and what Paul Kinnerk has brought to it is a plan and a type of hurling that suits their style.

“They have as big a panel as you could get in hurling. They have a high quality, very good hurlers and are playing to a plan, until someone can do something similar and meet them head on,” he adds.

He’s hopeful that Clare are the team to do that.

“Brian has definitely brought a great fighting spirit to the set-up and the last three matches have shown that,” he says.

“He has got a great blend and the availability of Shane O’Donnell and Peter Duggan has been massive this year.

“They are definitely going in with plenty of confidence and Clare seem best equipped, on what we’ve seen to date, to take them on.

“If Limerick have a full squad out on Sunday, if we have a full squad it is going to be very interesting to see how we match them for intensity.

“We are going to have to do that for 72/73 minutes. After 50 minutes you could be even, but the next 15, 16, 17 minutes that’s the winning and losing of the game. They just wear you down, but we seem to be physically and mentally in a great place.”

It could all come down to that bus journey to Thurles. Will everyone on the bus be as one and have the feeling that ‘today is going to be the day’? There can be no doubts. From anyone.

Meanwhile, we’re sure the flag pole has been planted on Dr Tommy Daly’s grave by now. In hope and expectation.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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