The 1990s will always be remembered as a magical time in Clare, not just for the success of the county, but also for the crusade Clare clubs went on when winning six successive Munster club titles.
The championship system at that time was fierce tough on club players because it was a straight knock-out. Most players were training all year, for only the promise of one or two championship games in September. But the Clare championship was so open and so competitive, that everybody felt they had a chance.
Ger Loughnane got some stick during his reign for the vice-grip he had on the county players, and the lack of leeway he gave the clubs. Loughnane though, always had an instant answer. I remember being in his company one night when someone gave it to him in the neck about the club championship repeatedly being put on the back-burner.
“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” bellowed the bould Ger, the laugh being the precursor to what was forming in his mind. “Hi, hold on, before I took over, a Clare club never won an All-Ireland. Now, Clare clubs are winning Munster every year. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” In fairness to Loughnane, he was right. There were some top clubs operating at the highest level, but the excitement was spiced up even more by the intrigue of not really knowing who would win the championship.
In many ways, there are similarities in Limerick now to what happened on the club scene in Clare when the county was on top.
Back in our time in the 1990s, you had four top teams — St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, Clarecastle, Wolfe Tones, and Sixmilebridge – and a long list of clubs capable of beating any of those teams on a given day.
Along with the big four of Kilmallock, Patrickswell, Na Piarsaigh, and Doon in Limerick now, the chasing pack is loaded with teams capable of winning the championship, or taking out any of the big guns along the way; Adare, Ahane, Ballybrown, South Liberties.
If you look around most counties now, the championships are pretty even, but there are a handful of exceptions, all of which involve the four clubs involved in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Slaughtneil won nine-in-a-row in Derry; Ballygunner wrapped up eight-in-a-row in Waterford; Ballyhale Shamrocks and St Thomas’ both completed four-in-a-row in Kilkenny in Galway. The Galway champions always go straight into the All-Ireland semi-finals but it’s not just certain county championships that are becoming predictable — so are the provinces.
The Galway championship is also the best indicator of how one team has managed to get a grip on a championship that was comparable to a bear-pit for decades. When St Thomas’ completed the four-in-a-row, they became the first team since Turloughmore six decades ago to manage that feat.
For a team that won an All-Ireland title eight years ago, and with many of those players still involved, many expected the south Galway side to be gradually slipping by this stage. Yet of their last four titles, the 2021 team looked the strongest of the lot. They nearly won pulling up.
Ballyhale have got the odd fright in Kilkenny over the last few years, especially from James Stephens in 2020, but nobody else has really bothered them at the business end of the championship. Outside of a couple of rattles from Mount Sion, including one last year, Ballygunner have had the Waterford championship by the throat since 2014. Slaughtneil have now extended their dominance in Derry to Ulster.
Ballyhale got a right fright in Leinster from St Rynagh’s but they still survived. Ballygunner got some lucky breaks to get past Loughmore-Castleiney, but if you were asked to pick the four provincial champions at the end of 2022, selecting the current four would be a safe enough bet.
All of these teams have serious credentials, especially Slaughtneil would probably be the least favoured of the four to win the All-Ireland, but just look at the All-Ireland semi-final experience those boys have? Since 2015, most of these players have featured in the last four of the All-Ireland hurling and football club championships.
Ballygunner will be fancied to advance but this is a really tricky game for them, especially in Parnell Park. The Donnycarney venue is certainly not Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Cusack Park, where the Gunners played Killmallock and Ballyea. The one day when Ballygunner were really pushed was on a soft field in Dungarvan.
Guys like Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rodgers, and everyone else around them, will believe this can be their day, but Ballygunner still look like a team insulated from all those external pitfalls of facing down an experienced and worldly outfit on a sticky pitch.
The maturity and humility of Philip Mahony’s acceptance speech two weeks ago was revealing in Ballygunner’s ambitions. At this stage, the Waterford club know that the Tommy Moore Cup is all that really matters. And by tomorrow afternoon, these Ballygunner players should be one step closer to what they believe is their destiny.
Ballyhale are favourites to win it all out again but their clash with St Thomas’ in Thurles is another tricky assignment. The real downer for St Thomas’ though, was the news of Shane Cooney’s serious knee injury because he is a massive player for them.
The logical move would be to shift Fintan Burke to centre-back, but I expect St Thomas’ to switch Evan Duggan into number 6 and bring young John Headd back in. However they decide to realign their team though, you can already see Ballyhale sniffing blood there, with TJ Reid at centre-forward.
TJ didn’t score in the Leinster final rout of Clough-Ballycolla. He was carrying an injury and was probably tired but I’m sure he’s come back after the Christmas break refreshed and recharged and ready to rock.
Most inter-county forward lines can only wish for a quartet of TJ, Colin Fennelly, Adrian Mullen, and Eoin Cody, but that’s the luxury Ballyhale possess. Being able to consistently produce X-factor players is one of the primary reasons the Kilkenny club are favourites to win their ninth All-Ireland. They’ll still be fully on their guard here, but I expect Ballyhale to negotiate a way past the Galway outfit.
I’m really looking forward to two top-class games because all four of these teams have been around the block long enough now to know what’s required to get over this hurdle. A Ballyhale-Ballygunner final would make for a brilliant game but a St Thomas’-Slaughtneil final wouldn’t be a total shock either. So, don’t rule it out.