Raising the Banner
14:44, 14 Jun 2012
It has been a long time since Clare were top of the pile in Munster hurling and battling out for Liam McCarthy Cups. Back then, current forward, Fergal Lynch was sitting in the Cusack Stand in 1995, watching his county put Offaly to the sword. He was back just two years later as the Banner saw off Tipperary by just a point to reclaim their title. Within a four year period in the 1990s, Anthony Daly, Jamesie O'Connor, Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin and Davy Fitzgerald, who takes charge of Clare on Saturday, brought two All-Ireland titles and three Munster titles out west.
Without a Munster title since '98, however, Clare have taken a backseat in the pursuit of hurling's most prestigious prize. Lynch himself was in his first year in Flannans in '95 when past pupil, Jamesie O'Connor was tearing defences apart on his way to two All-Ireland titles. Maybe it's fitting then that it should fall upon the same hurlers that brought glory back to the county for the first time in 81 years, to reshape hurling in the county.
"We have set up all these development squads, with all these former players, Seanie McMahon, Brian Quinn, Jim McInerney, Jamesie O'Connor formed this development squad about four years ago and they are just coming through to the minor ranks at the moment," explains Lynch. "It was just dividing the county into a couple of divisions and make sure the young fellas are being coached the correct skills and trying to bring ourselves up to the same grade as Kilkenny.
"That blueprint we have in Clare is actually copied from Kilkenny. If you forget about your youths, you will have nothing in five or six years time. We have been really concentrating on that in Clare over the last number of years because we see it as a red flag area. If we don't address (it) we will have nothing in the next few years. We will be weakened so badly that we will hardly be able to contest in leagues and championships. We are addressing that and hopefully we will be competing for them rather than being put out from them."
Along with the collapse of the Connacht Championship, and the failure of teams from Ulster to make any real impact, Lynch is of the opinion that the divide is growing between the elite and teams such as Clare. "Hurling, looks like a game that is dying. The stronger teams are only getting stronger and as far as I can see the weaker teams are getting a lot weaker. It's all down to underage structure, in how these things work out. Thankfully they have assessed that and looked at that in Clare.
"You can see the fruition of that coming through in minors and under 21 over the last couple of years. You can't be depending on that all along. Galway have won many All-Ireland minor and under-21s but they haven't come through in senior ranks, so it is a big thing for us to push those (minor) players through for the county."
In the meantime the current crop of hurlers take to the field against Waterford this Sunday in Thurles, as Clare supporters hope for a return to the success of the '90s. Although, there is belief in the current team and hopes in the county are high after winning Division 1B (which included two defeats of Limerick) Lynch believes there has to be some realism. "We haven't been playing the stronger teams, in the stronger division. That makes preparation that little bit difficult. You are playing teams that are of the same standard, but the only way get better is by playing the best.
"Our aim is to beat Waterford and get a place in the Munster final against Tipperary or Cork. It doesn't matter which one, but we have to get past Waterford first. They have the likes of Tony Browne, the Prendergast brothers, and John Mullane. We have got a good young team, who are quick and if the full-forwards can win some good ball, we've got a great chance."
Lynch made his debut in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final when they lost by a point to Cork, who went on to lift the Liam McCarthy Cup. While the likes of Anthony Cunningham may not remember the '95/'97 success, it is a motivation for Lynch. "It's great to play a quarter-final or semi-final in Croke Park, but as a hurler you dream of running out on All-Ireland Final day. I imagine there is no better feeling. It's my heart's desire to get there. That memory (of '95/'97) stays with you and you want to experience that."
The first hurdle for Lynch and Clare comes against Waterford, where Davy Fitzgerald comes up against his former charges. If they can overcome the Déise, a bigger challenge awaits, as Lynch seeks to bring Clare back to the top.
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