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Sat 30-Dec-2000 18:38
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Can 'The Banner' Survive Without Loughnane?
While everyone will have their own favourite memories of the past year in hurling, for An Moltóir, the most significant event of all was Ger Loughnane's decision to step down as Clare manager. In terms of historical impact, Loughnane's achievements with the Banner County rank up there with Wexford's breakthrough in the 1950s and Offaly's in the 1980s as one of the great hurling stories of the last half century. Loughnane's departure generated fulsome praise from the "meeja", who will be forever grateful for the acres of copy, which his belligerent and outspoken style served up on a plate for them. Yet the meeja's reviews of Loughnane's legacy ultimately failed to capture the immensity of what he had managed to do, or identify clearly how he did it.
Loughnane's achievement was quite simply to take his charges through the single greatest barrier, which has repeatedly bedevilled those second-tier counties who aspire to a seat beside the game's aristocracy - the barrier of self-doubt. Loughnane himself had played with as fine a bunch of players as ever came out of the Banner - Sean Stack, Sean Hehir, Johnny Callinan, Colm Honan, et al. However, time and again, they froze on Munster Final day, gifting handy titles to a moderate enough Cork team twice in the 1970s and an earnest but very limited Limerick outfit in 1981. Eventually, all they ended up with was a couple of National League titles.
When Loughnane took over in Clare, the latest crop of Banner hopefuls was portraying the same pattern: good displays in the earlier rounds and then complete flops against Tipp in 1993 and Limerick in 1994. Loughnane searched for some kind of formula, which could break through the Clare culture of big match nerves. Obviously his own passion and strength of character were useful assets, but on their own they fell a long way short of what was required. Many a manager has given a rip-roaring pre-match speech in the dressing room only for his charges to run onto the field like headless chickens and be taken apart by cool, calculating opponents who have been there before.
There were two key additional elements to Loughnane's formula. Much has been said and written about his (or, rather, Mike McNamara's) backbreaking training regime. However, this was really about mental, not physical, fitness. First of all, Loughnane wanted to identify which players were really committed to success, and a few sessions in mid-winter on the notorious hill in Crusheen went a long way towards sorting that one out. He also wanted to bond the players into a single unit: the pain of the Crusheen cruelty knocked the edges off the remaining prima donnas and created a common currency with which all involved could identify.
Above all else, Loughnane remembered the way Clare teams down through the years tended to go to pieces with victory in sight with a few minutes to go. Self-doubt would well up and legs would start to go to jelly. Loughnane reckoned that if his charges knew they were fitter - a lot fitter - than their opponents, then at least they would know they were capable of going that extra yard to the finishing line.
However, the big problem was to convince the players that they also had the ability to get vital scores, or to prevent the concession of vital scores, in those closing minutes. Famously, for the crucial breakthrough game against Limerick in the 1995 Munster final, he managed to get across to his players that, stripped of all the hype and brouhaha, it was just another game against fifteen ordinary mortals. He probably would have been happy enough with a Munster title that year, but then in the All-Ireland final, Offaly's penchant for living dangerously gave Clare the chance to exploit the kind of break which they never seemed to get when Loughnane himself was a player.
It would be easy to say at this juncture that the rest is history, but there is still a lot in that history which needs to be analysed. Loughnane's major obsession now was to avoid the flash-in-the pan syndrome. He knew from his own playing days that whenever Clare went out to play against Cork, Tipperary or Kilkenny, they were inclined to give them too much respect. Once you had that frame of mind, you were halfway to defeat, especially as the feeling was not mutual. When the big guns took the field against Clare, they expected to win, and probably by a big margin. The balance of respective attitudes usually meant that the result was a foregone conclusion.
Loughnane thus became preoccupied with earning the respect of the big guns for his team. He said as much in his triumphant speech after the 1997 Munster final. Many "neutral" observers thought that speech - and many which came later - was over the top. But Loughnane wasn't addressing the neutral observers - he was talking directly to his own players and his own people. All the hype of the ensuing years - the Colin Lynch episode, the cavalier attitude to abandoning announced lineouts, the repeated jousts with the GAA authorities - was designed to make Clare the focus of talk up and down the country. This not only took the spotlight and the pressure off the players, it also meant that Clare were the team everybody was talking about. People were wearing tee-shirts proclaiming that they were supporters of whichever county Clare were playing next. Clare had become the team to beat.
The big question now is whether Clare can maintain their position in the hurling frontline in Loughnane's absence? There were obvious signs of burnout in the last couple of years, with hints that the rigorous training regime was beginning to take its toll. If the Banner now does possess genuine self-belief, then perhaps they should pull back a little on that front. The club success of St. Josephs Doora Barefield has also taken a lot out of three key members of Loughnane's squad (McMahon, Baker and O'Connor).
Loughnane's impact on the county remains obvious in the amazing run of success of the Clare champions in the Munster club championship. There is certainly no sign of any loss of self-confidence on that front. On the intercounty front, the emergence of John Reddan as a centre-forward of massive potential could help solve the frontline deficiencies, which were always the major weakness in the Loughnane set-up. With the wonderful Niall Gilligan still to reach his peak, An Moltóir would counsel against writing the Banner off too readily.
If Clare can manage to take another title or two in the next three years, it will be not only good for hurling, but a lasting testimony to the legacy of Ger Loughnane...
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