“At Croke Park, either you express yourself or you go into your shell”

Shortly after Clare defeated Wexford two weeks ago, Clare FM’s Derrick Lynch interviewed Diarmuid Ryan, who was the station’s man of the match. Ryan was swarmed and praised by supporters on the pitch at Semple Stadium, but his responses to Lynch’s questions were laden with references to Croke Park.

“It’s a dream,” Ryan said. “We said at the beginning of the year that we wanted to go to Croke Park. It’s a dream for all of us to play up there. Not many of us went there. Kilkenny in two weeks is going to be another massive, massive battle, but Croke Park is where you want to be on those days.

Ryan has never played HQ before, but even the Clare players who have, the experience has been too fleeting and not consistent enough for a team filled with such class and quality.

“It’s huge to be back at Croke Park,” Tony Kelly said after the game against Wexford. “We haven’t played there often. “Getting to Croker and the final four is kind of the start of the year, regardless of provincial wins. It’s exactly where you want to be.”

After Clare won the 2013 All-Ireland title, a young team was to have rental rights at Croke Park, but five years passed in the blink of an eye. It took Clare until the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway for them to return to Croke Park. And they haven’t been back since.

Only four players from the current squad featured in that 2013 replay – Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, David McInerney and John Conlon. O’Donnell was only 19 years old. Kelly was not yet 20 years old. McInerney was still under 21. Conlon was only 24 years old. Clare are by far the least experienced team at Croke Park.

Since that 2018 game, Kilkenny have played at Croke Park ten times. Limerick have lined up there eight times, Galway six. Including his club appearances with Ballyhale Shamrocks, Saturday will be TJ Reid’s 15th visit to Croke Park since a Clare player was last at the venue.

Out of Clare’s panel of 26 for the All-Ireland quarter-final, their combined number of appearances at Croke Park – minor, U-21, club and senior – total just 37. Twelve of the 26 have never played there before .

Tony Kelly and TJ Reid are two of the greatest strikers in the history of the game, but their comparative number of Croke Park appearances is impressive. across the board, Reid has played on the site an incredible 51 times; Kelly only appeared there eight times.

Three appearances there as a minor in 2010 and 2011, plus an All-Ireland club final with Ballyea, have boosted his numbers, but Saturday will be just Kelly’s fifth appearance there at level senior with Clare; this will be the 40th time Reid has played a senior championship at Croke Park with Kilkenny.

Kelly was just 19 when he demolished the place in 2013, but Clare treated the place as their backyard that summer. Before the replay of the All-Ireland 2013 final, the players took to the pitch. A Super 11 exhibition game had just ended and a large group of Clare players gathered in a circle near the halfway line. And started playing goalie.

Brendan Bugler smiles to himself. His teammates were laughing and joking so much that they seemed almost oblivious to the huge occasion. Clairon knew Clare was ready to seize the opportunity. Still.

“It wasn’t planned that we would go out on the pitch and just have a little crazy before an All-Ireland final at Croke Park,” he said. “These things happen organically, but we felt so comfortable there. We had a lot of young people in our team. There was no luggage. It was an All-Ireland final, but we were up there to enjoy it.

In 2013, the average team age was just 23. Clare was young and fearless and they made Croke Park their playground that summer. “We loved the place,” Bugler says. “We felt the chains were loosened when we arrived at Croke Park. There was already a sense of accomplishment for getting there, so there weren’t really any nerves, no anxiety. We never felt any pressure up there.

In his autobiography, Anthony Daly referenced how Clare always believed Croke Park was “our domain”. This stemmed from Clare’s undefeated record in six games between 1995 and 1998.

Clare’s success during this period fueled the mythology of an idyllic relationship with Croke Park, although statistics have not always confirmed this claim; in 11 games between 1999 and 2010, Clare won only four of those games. In their two matches at Croke Park before 2013, they had lost to Limerick (2007) and Dublin (2010) by a combined 20 points.

When Clare returned there in 2013 it was the first All-Ireland semi-final since 2006, but most of the squad had experience of big days at Croke Park in the meantime. Eleven of the starting squad had played in either an All-Ireland U-21 final, an All-Ireland minor final or a minor semi-final.

“Those players always looked to play at Croke Park, but that was more what Croke Park stood for than actually playing there,” says Gerry O’Connor, co-manager of the Clare Minors who played in the All-Star Final. Ireland 2010 and the 2011 semi-final, as well as co-managing the senior team in 2018. “That meant you were at the business end of the Championship.

“Tony (Kelly) often made reference to the fact that the season was a success if Clare came to Croke Park. The players were always very comfortable in that environment. They were so relaxed with the pressure and winning at a young age that they just felt in 2013 that it was all just a natural progression. We looked made for Croke Park.

Reaching Croke Park at senior level was seen as a natural progression even more than granting Clare a huge sense of release when they got there.

“I think the whole Croke Park thing is a bit of a stretch,” said Colin Ryan of the 2013 team. It was more our motto than this belief that Clare was going to perform incredible hurling there. It was more like, “We’re back where we should be, or where we think we should be”. I never thought Croke Park was going to increase our hurling tenfold – it was just the confidence we gained going there. The large pitch and fast surface suited Clare’s expansive and flamboyant style, but the whole arena brought out something different about this group.

“Our attitude has always been, ‘The standard is getting better and our performance has to get better too,'” Pat Donnellan, the team’s captain in 2013, said a few years ago. “Playing at Croke Park helped us because it was a different environment.

“Everything was bigger, so you had to play bigger, you had to try more. The margins are smaller, so you had to think outside the box more. It definitely brought out the best in us. We all really wanted to enjoy Croke Park , we were like kids in a candy store.

The players ate it all. In the four games Ryan played at Croke Park – the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 final, the 2013 semi-final, the finals drawn and replayed – he missed just one place ball, scoring 0 -36 on 37 shots.

“There’s no hesitation at Croke Park,” Ryan said. “You play or you are left behind and eaten alive. There’s that pressure there, but Clare has always risen to the occasion over the years. We may not have been there very often, but we have always played there when we have been in Croke Park lately.

Their record of being unbeaten at Croke Park in their last four games again provided huge confidence. “We’re back up there, we’re back in the spotlight,” Bugler says. “That’s where you want to play, where you really want to express yourself. And I think that’s the type of team we are. We play a brand of hurling where we want to express ourselves. I think the Clare supporters also nurture this attitude because we always have massive support when we arrive at Croke Park.

During their years of exile from the place after 2013, frustration grew with each passing campaign. In Bugler’s last two seasons in 2016 and 2017, Clare’s year ended in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, one stop at Croke Park.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” Bugler says. “Deep down, with the youth and talent of the team, you thought we would come back to it regularly after 2013. It’s very frustrating to think about that now, to have played at Croke Park in an All- Ireland final and never to have played there again.

Ryan had also left by the time Clare returned to the seat in 2018. “It’s a huge regret,” he says. “It’s something that weighed on us for a while. On the other hand, there are a lot of players who have been to Croke Park many times and don’t have an All-Ireland. To have this medal we helped overcome the disappointment of not being able to return. We also had very fond memories of the place. Because we played there twice in front of 82,000 people, when the 2013 semi-final against Limerick had almost a full house too, we probably had the impression that we were there more often.Maybe because we went there so little, the memories are purer.

The challenge for Clare now is to create a new and more modern success story with Croke Park, where the signature moments are once again instinctive, expressive and fearless. Visits may be erratic but Clare will again aim to thrive and be inspired by this environment.

“At Croke Park, you either express yourself or go into your own shell and we have become used to expressing ourselves there,” says Ryan. “Even the guys who only played there once, in 2018, will take huge confidence from playing so well there.

“As we don’t go to Croke Park very often, we don’t take it for granted. I’m sure these guys are absolutely ready, not just to go to Croke Park, but to play there. The chains are almost removed now. It’s almost take-off time for the guys to go broke. For Clare, it’s just the right place to be.

Now that the front gate to Croke Park is open again, Clare will strive to drive through it.

Harold B. McConnell