Flashback: Clare v Limerick 1995 MSHC Final and 1996 MSHC
July 9 1995 Munster SHC Final - Clare 1-17 Limerick 0-11
June 16 1996 Munster SHC Semi-Final - Limerick 1-13 Clare 0-15
By William Dunne
One of the stirring hurling moments in the 1990’s was Davy Fitzgerald scampering back the length of Semple Stadium’s pitch after rifling a penalty into the root of the Limerick net.
The year was 1995, the location was Thurles, and the occasion was the Munster Senior Hurling Championship Final.
Clare were without a provincial crown since 1932 and were hurting, especially considering the anguish suffered in the two previous Munster final defeats to Tipperary and Limerick in ‘93 and ‘94 respectively.
In 1995, however, they were taken over by Ger Loughnane, who implemented an infamously intense training regime. This prompted a golden era in Clare hurling as they proceed to capture All-Ireland titles in 1995 and 1997.
An integral part of Loughnane’s squad - and their ultimate success - was four-time All-Star Jamesie O’Connor who believes that there may never have been success if the Banner didn’t overcome Cork in the Munster semi-final in ‘95.
“It’s a game that we probably could have easily lost and to be honest about it given the way we trained and the way we prepared, I don’t know how we would have gone back the following year”, O’Connor told GAA.ie this week.
“It would have been very, very hard psychologically to pick ourselves up from that. At the same it was a game that we expected to win”.
July 9th came and Limerick were seeking successive Munster titles while Clare were hoping that it would be third time’s a charm.
Both sides travelled to a scorching Semple Stadium that was not at full capacity with several Clare supporters discouraged with the previous two final defeats.
Limerick lead by two points in the 28th minute when referee Johnny McDonnell awarded the Banner a penalty before Fitzgerald trekked up to produce a most iconic moment.
“Davy was our penalty taker”, said O’Connor. “We knew that if we got a penalty that Davy would be the man tasked with the responsibility.
“I suppose it was a huge moment in the game and psychologically if it was saved, it would have given them a huge shot in the arm. Whereas with us, goals obviously turn matches and it was a key moment in the game”, said O’Connor who scored six points in the final.
O’Connor’s most notable memory from that day however, was at half-time. He felt that 12 months earlier the Munster Final was conceded at the interval and that lessons were learned under Loughnane.
“In ‘94 the match was probably lost at half-time”, he recalled. “We were still only three or four points down which, in a hurling match, is nothing. Somebody said at half-time: ‘we’re not beaten yet’. And in that sense we were beaten there and then.
“Whereas ‘95 Davy had got the penalty before half-time and we were in a great position, it was really there for us. I just remember that there was a real sense that this is it. This is the acid test of this team.
“I just remember Loughnane just said at half-time, before we went out, was ‘don’t surrender’ and with the mind-set the team had and the way we trained and prepared we couldn’t take losing three in a row.”
As the game progressed and Clare never looked like relinquishing their lead, the 63 year wait for Munster glory looked to be coming to a conclusion.
The team, led by captain Anthony Daly, did not relent and with seconds remaining overly keen Clare supporters broke onto the pitch in premature celebrations, and O’Connor admits he was fearing the worst at that stage.
“There was one thing I remember just before it finished up, obviously the Clare crowd were coming on to the pitch in anticipation of the referee blowing the final whistle.
“You wondering if he’s going to abandon the game or is some other catastrophe going to follow given all the disappointments that we endured, but listen it was just a fantastic day.
“All-Irelands were something that we’d obviously worry about down the line, but that day and that occasion, I mean Munster finals are big days anyway.
“But, to win your first one and to win one as a county that you hadn’t won in 63 years and beaten in I don’t know, 15 finals in the intervening period? It was massive for the county.”
Clare entered the All-Ireland series with the shackles off so to speak after claiming, what O’Connor called, the Banner’s ‘holy grail’ and ultimately climbed the steps of the Hogan stand on the first Sunday in September to lift the Liam McCarthy cup for the first time since 1914.
Ger Loughnane had created a formidable side with an ethos that revolved around hard work and had set the standard for the future of hurling.
Naturally brimming with confidence Clare would have entered 1996 with high expectations, but up first was Limerick in the semi-final of the Munster Championship. The two counties met in mid June at the Gaelic Grounds in front of over 40,000 spectators and a classic unfolded.
Limerick were carrying the hurt of an All-Ireland final defeat to Offaly in ‘94 and that Munster exit the previous July and produced a defiant display which saw them scrape a win by the narrowest of margins.
In the 1-13 to 0-15 victory, Limerick’s Gary Kirby scored 1-7, but there’s only one name that sticks out when this fixture springs to mind and it’s the name of fellow Patrickswell clubman Ciaran Carey.
With the sides level in injury time Carey picked up the sliotar 50 metres from his own goal and began a long run up the pitch.
He soloed up the pitch with three Clare defenders hot on his heels. As Carey caught the ball to line up a shot off the left side, Carey dummied an attempt only to put the ball back on the hurley leaving the defenders in his tracks before popping the sliotar up, having the know-how not to catch the ball for a third time and, fire between the sticks.
“I’ll be honest, I thought I was going to be taken out”, Carey admitted to GAA.ie. “I thought I was going to be floored or flattened for a free. That would have been my initial thought process.
“It just opened up and I kept going and kept going and I suppose I was saying ‘God there’s no hit coming’ and obviously they were aware they weren’t going to be giving away a free for a cheap score.
“The further I was going on, the opportunity inevitably presented itself in front of me and luckily enough, thank God I put it over.”
The defeat the year before was even more devastating considering how close they got to All-Ireland glory in ‘94 the former Limerick captain confessed and that heading into this Munster semi-final he and his teammates were looking to set the record straight.
Leading into the eagerly awaited tie, Carey felt that despite Clare’s exploits in the previous year both sides entered the game on an equal footing.
“My memories were, it was a scorcher of a day. It was definitely one of these hot summer days, one of them hot summer Sundays that you get. The ground was like a rock.
“Leading into it to be fair, both teams fancied themselves. Both teams knew they had really good squads. It was fairly 50/50 and as it turned out on the day that’s how close it was.”
It was tense, enthralling and a true Munster championship shootout - the teams were level nine times. “I think they took the lead, we took the lead, they took the lead,” Carey recalls. “I think it was always nip and tuck. It was always tight. They didn’t go six or seven points ahead and we didn’t do the same.
“So it was always fairly close. In close games at the end of the day the team that actually stays going and can keep the concentration level for the full 70/75 minutes, however long it takes, and minimises the mistakes will be the team that wins.”
In injury time Limerick’s debutant Barry Foley, with number 21 stitched into the back of his jersey, sailed over the equaliser before Carey took charge.
With one more passionate and determined run up the pitch, Carey notched the defining score leaving many, including Clare’s Jamesie O’Connor, in awe.
“We had chances that we didn’t convert and didn’t take and that came back to haunt us and Ciaran Carey got the famous, memorable point to win it so there was nothing in it.
“Carey was a brilliant player and I suppose he got the type of score that deserves to win a match like that”, said O’Connor.
Clare were dumped out of the Championship as no backdoor system existed at the time and Limerick went on to reach another All-Ireland Final, but they fell short against Wexford.
That 1996 opening clash was the fourth consecutive year that the two neighbours met and it’s not only considered to be one of the greatest matches of that year, but also the decade.