Davy Fitzgerald is beaten by a Joe Erritty penalty in the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final.
THE rivalry between Offaly and Clare was one of the abiding memories of the 1990s and it transformed hurling for the better in that decade as they shared four All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship titles between them, two apiece.
The two counties broke the stranglehold of the traditional powerhouses of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary and they were at the centre of a couple of hurling's most famous clashes. Clare won one against the head in 1995, beating warm favourites Offaly to claim their first All-Ireland title sicne 1914 in a game that is still reflected on with great regret in the Faithful County.
Offaly had beaten Limerick in a famous All-Ireland final in 1994, had destroyed Kilkenny in the 1995 Leinster final and seemed to be at the peak of their powers. However, Clare got them in an All-Ireland final where Offaly weren't at their best but still had ample possession and chances to have won.
Clare won a second title in 1997 and were hot favourites in 1998 but their ambitions were ended by Offaly in an extraordinary All-Ireland semi-final trilogy – after drawing the first day in Croke Park, Clare were heading for victory in the replay when referee Jimmy Cooney blew up time early. Furious Offaly fans sat on the Croke Park pitch in protest, a refixture was subsequently ordered and on a never to be forgotten day in Thurles, Offaly produced one of their greatest ever performances to ambush the holders and favourites – they now had an unstoppable head of steam built up and went onto win the Liam McCarthy Cup for the fourth time against Kilkenny in the final.
Since then, both counties have went in opposite directions. After losing to Kilkenny in the 2000 All-Ireland final, Offaly went into decline and then freefall, eventually dropping to the third tier Christy Ring Cup before winning that last year – their Joe McDonagh Cup ambitions this year were ended by Carlow on Saturday.
Clare have remained a very competitive, top tier county, winning a fourth All-Ireland in 2013 and they have punched at a much higher level than Offaly. Davy Fitzgerald has been synonymous with Clare hurling for over three decades. He was the goalkeeper when Clare were beaten by Offaly in the 1989 All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship final, he was between the posts throughout the 1990s and he was the manager when they triumphed again in 2013.
A sometimes controversial figure, he has a great track record as a manager and has also taken charge of Wexford and Waterford. The Sixmilebridge man was in Killeigh last week where he is running a Midlands Fittest Superstars Team Challenge for the local Schoolboys and Girls Soccer Club this Saturday and he spoke with great passion about his memories of his own playing career and Clare's rivalry with Offaly as well as the current challenges facing the county.
He was surprised at Offaly's abrupt decline post 2000 and believes that they may have been too slow in adapting as other counties brought training, tactics and team preparation to a different level.
“I kind of was (surprised). Offaly have gone missing for a while and I don't know why. They have been sorely missed but they have been out of the top table, big time. You have to change your hurling style, you have to change different things and I don't know if Offaly were willing to make that change but you have to. It's like everything in life. If we go back fifty years, the quality of the television wasn't the same. The way we lived wasn't the same. Everything moves on. Hurling is the same. The way hurling was played 20-30 years ago, even when we were playing, isn't the same. I love it now. I think it is gone into a different process now. It is a bit faster, there is way more different aspects of skill. That doesn't mean it wasn't good in our time, of course it was good but it has just moved on.
“I don't think we should be comparing it too much. What was in the '80s and '90s and '70s, that was a period of time and you went with what it was. What is there now is good and let's just enjoy it. I think Offaly were a small bit slow in making the change and adapting. Maybe they thought the long ball was always good and X, Y and Z. You need a bit of variety now. You need to be able to do a bit of everything. It is great to see that Offaly are coming and they are coming with different things.”
He enjoyed watching Offaly beat Laois in the Leinster Minor Hurling Championship final last week, remarking:
“I thought they were exceptionally well coached the other night and that is what we want. Personally to see Offaly and Laois there the other night was great. Laois are not in a bad place either so all good.”
Offaly really impressed him in that game.
“I was very impressed. Number one the crowd who was there from both counties would lift your heart. I would always have been a big supporter of Offaly. We had our battles, some right tough ones but I am mad to see them get back up there and be competing. In fairness, they are doing that. Senior wise they are starting to get back on track. It is not going to happen over night. To see their minors there the other night and the way they played was fabulous.
“It is great and that will lift the spirits of young kids around Offaly. It is phenomenal and this doesn't happen over night that Offaly arrives with a minor team and win. This has to happen with a few years of work and well done to the people who have made this happen. I am sure anyone involved with the team will acknowledge that. It comes from people doing serious work and I am delighted.”
Like Offaly senior hurling manager Michael Fennelly, he stressed that one team won't change things for Offaly and they need to be regularly competing with Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford at all levels.
“One swallow never made a summer. You need this to be consistent. I am not saying you need to be winning Leinster minors every year but if you are competing you have a chance. This is what they have to take from this, stay competing, stay consistent. Get to a final here and there, be very consistent with the Kilkenny's, Wexford's and Galway's. If they can do that you have a right good chance but this is a great start. This is right there and I am excited because the more teams that can come to the top table the better. We should never have one or two teams dominating hurling. I want to see more teams there and I genuinely mean that. The more that is there the better.”
He agreed that a strong Offaly would be good for hurling and he spoke about the spin offs this win could have for the county.
“Offaly and Clare in the '90s made a massive difference and even Wexford came in for 1996. They broke the mould of the Cork's and Kilkenny's and Tipp. That is what we want. It makes it exciting. These teams have to make the big breakthrough and for a county like Offaly to have this team that could come and the hope that goes with that, the whole county will go bananas. Personally as a GAA person, you are mad to see that and we want that.
“It was unbelievable for the kids who were there and the parents but it was unbelievable watching it on TV and the amount who watched it. That was a great advertisement. I have one word in life which is hope and everyone should have a bit of hope. If Offaly and Laois can't take hope out of this and if they can't build on it, there is something wrong. There must be a big buzz around Offaly.
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“There is a lot of counties out there who aren't getting anything at all so it is big but it should give other counties hope. It just proves. You look at Clare, we got to the minor final and beaten on penalties. Won the Harty Cup. Two or three years we were in a Munster final, Galway beat us by a point in the All-Ireland quarter-final and went on and won it by a point. You need to be competing and there or there abouts but I don't want Offaly to rest on their laurels. Now they have to put more with it becaue one good underage team won't make a good senior team.
He has experienced never to be forgotten days against Offaly in the 1990s, starting with that 1989 All-Ireland minor final defeat.
“It was an unbelievable day. I never forget going in on the bus as a minor and we had a garda escort, sirens blazing. My first day at an All-Ireland final and it was incredible. I think Offaly were the better team on the day and when I look back on it, they deserved it. Brian Whelahan was playing against us that day, he was unreal. John Troy. It was deadly and then you met them in a senior All-Ireland a few years later. We actually had great tussles. Offaly were serious hurlers between Brian Whelahan's, the Dooley's. Johnny was unreal but I always loved Joe from an early age, he was there before them. You had Billy (Dooley), the Pilkington's, a lot of serious players were there.”
While happy to talk about the past, he stated that it needs to be put in its proper place and the only thing that matters now is the current teams and players.
“I would have had massive respect for what they done but as I keep saying, that was great but our time was our time. That was back then but now things have moved on. The memories are great but we now have to say it is other people's time. Sometimes, people have a tendency to want to hang on and think they know it all but we have to let the people who are coming up now do their own thing. Certainly we look back with fond memories and I think we were all lucky to have been a part of that but it is time to say now, the new breed is around, hurling has changed. Let them have their change, let them find their own way and let's enjoy it.”
Inevitably, the conversation came around to 1998. Do you ever get sick of being asked about it?
“1998 is a regret. I really do feel we were the best team in the country. That is not Offaly's fault that I feel that way. Offaly did what they had do to and they won it. Do I hold anything against them? No I don't, they did what they had to do. We had our chances and whatever happened that day happened. Fair play to them, they won it but would it be a slight regret that we thought we could have got over the line? Of course, I am not going to lie to anyone. I feel that way but we can't go back and change anything. It is done, it is over and well done to Offaly. If you ask me straight, it is one I feel we let get away from us.
“You can look back on '95, you can look back on '94 and say Offaly were poxed to win. Every game requires a bit of luck. You will get it one day, you won't get it the next day. That is how it goes. Do I really look back on '96, '98 with massive regret, especially '98? I don't. Do I feel we could have got another one? I do but I actually don't feel bad. You can't win them all and you accept that. That is very important and I want to bring this across in this, what has been has been and that is it. I totally accept it. You will get the breaks some days and you won't another day and that is it. There is no point in crying about. I would have loved to have won 1998, we didn't and that's it, end of story.”
He spoke about the way hurling has moved on then and when told that some people in Offaly still talk about ground hurling, he smiled:
“It's not realistic. That was in the type of play we had back then and it was great back then. I often hear people saying, ah the game isn't the same. The game is different. It is faster. There is different aspects of skill done at a faster pace. It is not all long ball. It is short, it is long, scoring from distance. You can talk about the sliotar and X, Y and Z but why are we complaining. We are always complaining about something. We have to stop that. It is what it is. Let's embrace it and stop giving out about it. Let these young people be. They don't know what it was lke back 20-30 years ago. Stop trying to pull them back. Let them have their time. We had a great time. We can look back on matches and put on tapes of 20-30 years ago and it is great to look back on them but time has moved on. Let's go with it.”
He agreed that the past should never be used to denigrate modern hurling.
“If we look back at the '80s, '70s, the '60s, let's not fool ourselves. It was great back then and it worked but if we played that type of game now we would have no young people at it. They want to do more stuff, they want to express themselves more, they want to train differently. That is like everything in life. Life moves on. In fifty years time, I won't be around but what will life be like. It is going to move on again.
“Let's stop moaning and groaning. That would be my message to people. Stop. Let's enjoy what we have.”
Speaking before Offaly were beaten by Carlow on Saturday and bowed out, he said he expected them to get to the Joe McDonagh Cup final and lose to Antrim there.
“Offaly in Division 1 were a small bit our of their depth this year. They did okay in a couple of games. The thing I would like them to do is to make sure defensively. They are giving away too many scores for my liking. In order to win any game, you have to keep the score down. They are not bad at scoring but they need to be a small bit smarter and not give away as many scores. They gave away too many scores against Kerry. I think they are definitely making progress. 100% they are making progress but there is more to be made. They need to be smarter at the back. Michael is doing a really good job but to me, the step coming from winning the Christy Ring, I know they deserve to be in 1 but it was just a big step and they were thrown to the lions really.
“I'd liked to have seen another little step. Another year in the league below them wouldn't have done any harm. It's done and they are not doing too bad in the Joe McDonagh. They are making the steps but just be careful you don't make them too quick. If you go too quick, you are in trouble. I think they have to get to the Joe McDonagh Cup final and I think they will. Will they beat Antrim? I don't think so. I think it will be very tight. They ran Antrim close in the championship, they were beaten in the league. I think them and Antrim are the two best teams in it. I think Antrim are nearly ready to compete up above. I think they are better than some of the teams who are there at the moment. I think Offaly are going the right direction. I am always very honest in what I say. They are going the right direction but I think the next year or two is massive for them.
“It is the progression that Michael has to make from now for the next year or two and I think he will. I think he is learning. He will get one or two more things. Next year or the year after will be very interesting. It will tell where Offaly is going to be in five years time but you are in the right direction.
“They are not there but you went down to Christy Ring, you got out of that. Now please God you are getting to the final of the Joe McDonagh. You are making the steps. You are not going to make them all of a shot but you are definitely making them. I think the process is going right but you still have to learn those bits and pieces. I just believe they are conceding a lot. They score a lot but they have to learn not to concede as much as they are conceding.”
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