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Ger Loughnane got under Kilkenny skin when he told Clare FM that their hotshot DJ Carey 'was only as good as the ball he got'. Picture Credit: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE.

When Clare hurlers had an old score to settle with Kilkenny…

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Clare have only beaten Kilkenny once in senior championship hurling — it was the year the revered Con Houlihan called the Banner County the most deserving champions of all time, recalls Joe Ó Muircheartaigh from a quarter of a century ago.

WHEN JAMESIE O’Connor arced to the left and then off his left fired over the most important point of his hurling career from underneath the old Hogan Stand into the Hill 16 end to win the 1997 All-Ireland it was the cherry topping on a cake that had many tiers.

Clare had done what Mick O’Dwyer told Ger Loughnane they had to do when they met at a function down in Cork the previous year — that was to win a second All-Ireland to prove the greatness of the team. A first couldn’t do that, but a second most definitely would.

“It can be argued that Clare are the most deserving champions of all time,” wrote Con Houlihan in The Sunday World. “They have beaten the three giants of tradition, Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny — for great measure they beat Tipp again. You can hardly argue with this,” he added.

No one did — the Three Kings were on the floor, and you know they’d have beaten Cork and Kilkenny twice that year if they needed to, because this was the Clare team that Ger Loughnane, Mike McNamara and Tony Considine built at the peak of its powers.

If it was pure emotion, hurt and hunger and a bit of hurling throwing in that carried them over the winning lines in Munster and Ireland in ’95, it was all about the hurling in ’97 as they cemented their status as the game’s market leader.

It was hurling’s ‘Revolution Years’, with Clare in the vanguard and at the apex of this rebellion, just because of where they came from in a few short years being hurling’s greatest volte-face. Ever.

The mountaintop may have been beating Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, but the semi-final was every bit as significant in the context of what the 1-17 to 1-13 win over Kilkenny represented — the first, and to date, the only championship victory over the Cats.

It was as sweet as an All-Ireland in its own way, even if there were no medals or trophies handed out at the end of it.

Why? Track back 28 months to Clare’s previous big-match experience against Kilkenny when it seemed that Clare were as far away as ever from making the big breakthrough. It was the National League final in Thurles and Kilkenny filleted Clare by 2-12 to 1-9.

The enduring image of the day was Eamonn Taaffe sitting on the Semple Stadium sod in a Kilkenny jersey with his head down and disconsolate — Kilkenny were short-odds favorites to win the All-Ireland, some bookies would have given you any odds you wanted on Clare.

Yet it happened. When Eamonn Taaffe finally picked himself up and went to the dressing room Ger Loughnane told him and anyone else who was listening that Clare would win the Munster title — they did, and more, while the short-odds favourites for the Liam McCarthy didn’t even make it out of Leinster.

Hurling’s order had changed, but in all revolutions, you have to topple all the top dogs. The ‘Big Three’, those ‘Three Kings’.

Cork and Tipperary had been accounted for — now for Kilkenny as the biggest ash tree of all was ready for chopping on 10 August, 1997.

In the week leading up to the game Ger Loughnane was interviewed on Clare FM where he talked Kilkenny — and when you talked Kilkenny in those years the conversations generally started and ended with DJ Carey.

Kilkenny hadn’t won Leinster, but under Nicky Brennan’s management, they’d come through the back door to reach a first semi-final in four years with Carey hitting 2-8 in their epic 4-15 to 3-16 quarter-final victory over Galway.

Loughnane’s line was simple really — that Carey was only as good as the ball he got. Hardly words to whip up a diplomatic storm but Kilkenny took offense, even if, the same week, Tony Considine heaped praise on the Cats’ talisman when saying, “I never saw the great Christy Ring in action, but if he was as good as Carey, my God he was good”.

Kilkenny only heard what they wanted to hear, with the offending Clare FM tape making it all the way as far as Radio Kilkenny and from there to the Kilkenny team bus as it made its way to Croke Park on the morning of the game.

It was probably apocryphal, but was on the bus that it was allegedly loaded into the tape deck and played and followed by a lashing of Loughnane — “DJ, only as good as the ball he got”, “Say nothing about our DJ”, “Leave our Dodger alone”.

There was more though, with the wag that’s at the back of every bus piping up that “Loughnane was right”.

Whatever happened and wherever the truth lies, Loughnane did no wrong in ’97 and as the Clare bus approached Croke Park all that remained was to get it right on the field — DJ would only be as good as the ball he got, or else he’d pick up where he left off against Galway.

“Clare are clearly feeding off the need to beat Kilkenny in a major championship match,” said Liam Horan in The Irish Independent.

“They may have shown that they can live with the intensity of their own agenda, but Kilkenny are better than any team they have met so far this year. I go for Clare,” he added.

Meanwhile, in The Irish Times, Seán Moran parsed it down to mind games: “Unless Clare are psyched out by Kilkenny’s pedigree — and signs are they are more motivated than intimidated by such things — their greater experience should stand to them”.

Horan and Moran called it right. And so did Ger Loughnane. DJ ‘Dodger’ Carey was only as good as the ball he got and was almost kept in check, while Clare’s version of him in Jamesie O’Connor continued on his way to being 1997 Hurler of the Year by having his greatest day in a Clare jersey.

And, this victory over Kilkenny was one of Clare’s greatest days, even if over the past 25 years it has been forgotten and lost behind the narrative of beating the old enemy of Tipperary twice in the same year, Anthony Daly’s famous ‘We’re No Longer The Whipping Boys’ speech in Munster, which carried all the way forward to the All-Ireland final as Loughnane locked horns with Liz Howard in a row over what Daly said and then with Eamonn Cregan after the game because of what he said.

Still, Clare’s first and last victory over Kilkenny in the championship was a landmark in its own right.

Revenge for that 1995 National League Final defeat didn’t take long to kick in. After just three and a half minutes Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin swooped for another All-Ireland semi-final goal, to park alongside the two he got in 1995 against Galway.

The Clarecastle man flashed home a rebound after goalkeeper Adrian Ronan had thwarted Fergal Hegarty’s effort. Clare were on their way, just like they were after O’Loughlin’s 16th-minute strike two years previously.

It wasn’t until the 25th minute that Clare looked like losing their way, when referee Dickie Murphy awarded a penalty against Brian Lohan for a foul on Carey.

It was a penalty that fired Clare to great things in the 1995 Munster final against Limerick — now Carey’s strike against Anthony Daly, David Fitzgerald and Liam Doyle that manned the Clare goal assumed the same importance for Kilkenny. They were 1-5 to 0-4 down and needed it.

“I hit it perfectly,” said Carey afterwards. “No excuses. Fitzgerald got his hurl to it to knock it away and before we knew what happened they had a 65 at the other end. Hurling is like that,” he added.

“I reckoned DJ would hit the ball to my right,” recalled Fitzgerald, “as it takes a goalkeeper like me, who holds his right hand on top of the hurley, that bit longer to move the stick to the right of his body than the left.

“DJ took the best option in hitting the ball to that side. My reflexes were sharp. I got my stick to the ball and was able to keep it out,” he added.

By the time DJ took the penalty Loughnane had moved from the sideline and positioned himself directly behind the goal.

When it was saved, Clare’s 16th man gave his trademark clench-fisted salute — the Black Power salute from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico that was his way of signalling Clare Power. It was a defiant salute of Clare’s power and immovability on a day that saw them produce a powerhouse performance.

The display for most of the second half confirmed this.

When David Forde fired over his only point in the 52nd minute of the game they were 1-16 to 0-8 clear and coasting. By this stage DJ hadn’t managed a score from play and after getting no change out of Brian Lohan was shunted around to a variety of positions in the forward line until he finally broke through for a goal with 15 minutes remaining.

From there the Cats rallied, but still, Clare were never in any danger of losing a game they had bossed when it mattered most.

Loughnane may have said afterwards, “this was just another day’s work for us,” but it was much bigger than this.

“We had an old score to settle,” remembered Mike McNamara. “We were hammered by Kilkenny in the League Final and there was a lot of anger in the county over a very derogatory colour feature in the Kilkenny People on the week after the match.

“The theme of the article was Poor Clare, we were so bad that a bus should be sent down to Clare to round up fellas and bring them to Kilkenny for coaching and failing that they could send down Eddie Keher and other good hurlers to help promote the game in Clare.”

“We regarded it as offensive and left a bad taste in our mouths. When the chance came to prove to Kilkenny what the real men of Clare were like we were determined to seize it.”

“We were determined to let Kilkenny know that there was no need to send a bus for Clare anymore. We proved it that day when we were far superior than the four-point gap at the finish,” he added.

The score they have to settle on Saturday is to record a first championship victory over the Cats in 25 years.

Then and only then will the local derby talk of a clash with either Limerick or Galway be allowed. How sweet it would be.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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