Flashback: 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final - Clare v Tipperary
By John Harrington
Clare’s heavy metal play was a defining soundtrack of the most cymbal-crashing of all hurling decades, the 1990s.
Managed by the irrepressible Ger Loughnane, they were brash and bold and didn’t care who they annoyed along the way as they set about tearing down the old order and establishing the Banner County as the best in the business.
They played the game on their own terms and made no apologies for doing so.
They were fitter than any team in the history of the game until then, and wore the opposition down with their relentless athleticism and abrasiveness.
They were fine hurlers too and perhaps only got the full credit for that when they followed up their 1995 All-Ireland title with a second one in 1997.
That sealed their legacy as a team, something that Ger Loughnane was always very conscious of at the outset of the 1997 campaign.
Their 1995 success was regarded as a bolt from the blue, and he knew they’d never be regarded as anything more than one-hit wonders if they didn’t back up that success by winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup again.
“To win the second All-Ireland, psychologically, teams that don't achieve very much, once they achieve, they get very easily satisfied,” Loughnane told GAA.ie.
“Players, supporters, everybody get very easily satisfied.
“Not thinking of the bigger picture, and the bigger picture being that you're not going to be respected until you become a force.
“And you become a force if you can win the second All-Ireland. And it has to be a clean All-Ireland - Munster Championship and All-Ireland.
“In 1997 the back-door system had come in but no-one had mentally adjusted to the back door.
“Back then the beaten Munster Finalists could come back into it. The draw that year was that we had to play Cork, play Tipp, play Kilkenny, and play Tipp again.
“Now, if you won that All-Ireland, no-one was ever going to question the merit of it or the quality of your team.
“It was massive. Because to beat Cork first of all you have to be up to the very highest peak, and that was in June.
“Then you have to remain at a peak through June, July, August and into the first week of September which is a very difficult thing to do.”
Loughnane was a master motivator, and in 1997 he was at his manipulative best.
Being the snarling underdog suited the psyche of his Clare players, and in 1997 Loughnane had his players foaming at the mouth to sink their teeth into Tipperary.
“To win in 1995 you had to use up a whole pile of, I won't say tricks, but a whole pile of different strategies that you were devising,” said Loughnane.
“So, to win again in 1997 you had to have a different strategy. And definitely the strategy that year was to get Tipp for all the injustices they had visited on Clare for over 100 years! Basically that was it.
“So, Tipp were the focus. To beat Tipp. To meet them first of all, and then to beat them. From the start of that year, really that was it. To make Tipp pay for what they had done to Clare, especially in 1993.
“Doing it in a quarter-final like we did in 1994 was no good, you had to do it in a Munster Final. So when the draw came out we reckoned that Tipp would be in the Munster Final and that if we could beat Cork we'd be there too.
“That year the League went on in the spring and right into the summer. Someone had the idea that they'd have the League going on because there were big gaps in April, May, and June. We met Tipp in the League in Ennis.
“It was one of the most unforgettable games I've ever witnessed. Pat Horan, a referee from Offaly, was refereeing it.
“The game was held up beforehand by the crowd and we were absolutely hyped to the absolute limit and so were Tipperary, because we both reckoned we'd be meeting later on in the Championship.
“I remember going over to Pat and he was absolutely shaking before the throw-in. This was an ordinary League match! You'd have to have been there to believe it.
“The game was ferocious. It was filthy! Lucky there were no cameras or action replays. It was savage. And Tipp beat us. It was like they won a Munster Championship match afterwards.
“Len (Former Clare manager Len Gaynor) was with Tipp by then which had added spice to the whole thing. The fact that Tipp beat us then whetted the appetite all the more to meet them again in the Championship.”
Loughnane got his wish, Clare and Tipperary won through to the Munster Final, and the Banner County came out on top on a score-line of 1-18 to 0-18.
If there was any doubt that Clare were a team motivated to prove a particular point coming into the match, their captain Anthony Daly erased it when he began his acceptance speech by saying, “Every Clare man, woman, and child came to Cork this weekend on a mission - to prove we’re no longer the whipping boys of Munster!”
As much as Loughnane revelled in the moment himself, the dust had barely settled on Clare’s triumph before he was already fixated on the possibility of having to bury Tipperary all over again.
“That Munster Final in '97 epitomised that era,” said Loughnane. “The tension, the level of noise, the electric atmosphere that was there.
“It had everything you ever heard about great Munster Finals. Usually those stories would refer to Tipp and Cork, and here now Clare were performing at this level. And then Clare won. So it was just unbelievable.
“But when you sat down afterwards and thought about it...this was the first year of the back-door and I remember Babs (Keating) earlier on that year had given the example in a newspaper of the possibility of Clare beating Tipp in the Munster Final, but then Tipp could then come back and beat them in the All-Ireland. And what good would the Munster Final be to Clare then?
“So, Jesus, now you're thinking all of the effort that had gone into beating Tipperary and now it could all go down the drain.
“Then they played Wexford and beat Wexford and we beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-finals. So then we were meeting again in the Final. That was the hardest game to prepare for, ever.
“It was the most psychologically draining that I ever experienced. People talk about 1998 and all that happened then, but it was nothing in comparison to how draining playing Tipp was in that All-Ireland in 1997. It just left me totally and utterly drained by the time it was over.”
Hate is a strong word in a sporting context but Loughnane did his level best get his players to hate that Tipperary jersey, all the better to ensure they were as motivated as they could possibly be when they faced it in battle.
But how about Tipperary? How did they view Clare coming into the 1997 All-Ireland Final?
According to Michael Ryan, who played corner-back that day, they didn’t quite hold the same animus for the Banner County, but they were certainly determined to meet them head-on.
“We were well aware of it (Clare’s hate for Tipp),” he told GAA.ie. “We didn't feel like that about them. We had a huge amount of respect for these guys, they had won the All-Ireland in 1995, and been pipped by Limerick in '96.
“They were really strong and the top team in the country at the time, bar none, and I say that with the greatest respect to everybody else.
“They were out there on their own. They were fitter and stronger than all of us. At least that was the perception, and, being honest, maybe we bought into that perception too much.
“To be fair, from one to eight, they were probably the strongest one to eight in the country.
“They had a savage midfield, savage half-back line, savage full-back line. Characters like Lohan, Seanie McMahon, Davy Fitz, Ollie Baker, Liam Doyle, Colin Lynch. Not to mention Dalo himself. The two corner-backs, O'Halloran and Frank Lohan, were serious too. They were literally in their pomp as a team.
“We looked at it as a massive rivalry, we didn't have fear for these guys, we were trading blows with them any time we met them.
“But you would have heard and sensed that these guys hated us or wanted to hate us. It's something like the way Kilkenny would have had that same beyond emotion stuff with Tipperary as well from 2009 on for a good few years.
“So that type of attitude wasn't unique to that Clare team, but it was very deliberate, certainly from Loughnane himself, and it was part of their identity because they felt they had to do it to break the losing cycle that they would have had as a county previously.
“Tipperary don't operate the same way, really, and we didn't back then. The whole, 'we hate them', is not how we play because inevitably when we go down that avenue we step over the line.
“But in 1997 we were certainly there to compete and we were bloody well able to compete with them.
“And we knew Clare were nervous at the thought of what it would be like to have beaten us in Munster only to lose to us in the All-Ireland Final.”
Loughnane’s dread at such a prospect was growing with every passing week.
It had taken such an emotional as well as physical effort to win the Munster Championship that he sensed the team’s energy levels were starting to flag at the worst time possible coming into the All-Ireland Final.
“In the semi-final against Kilkenny we started to wilt in the second-half,” he says. “We had played brilliantly in the first-half, we just wiped them off the field.
“But in the last 20 minutes we started to wilt. The preparation had been so great for the start of the Championship, you were saying to yourself were they now gone past their peak?
“We went down to Killarney the weekend before the All-Ireland and played a game among ourselves and it was one of the worst I've ever seen. I said to myself, 'Jesus, we're in right trouble'.”
Tipperary, for their part, were keen to sow some doubts in Clare minds early in the game in the hope they’d take root and blossom the longer the match went on.
It was helter-skelter stuff, but, with the wind at their backs, Tipperary grew into the game and began to steadily open a gap on the scoreboard.
“The match itself took off at 100mph,” recalls Ryan. “I don't remember playing in a game where I fouled more or was fouled more in the opening 20 minutes of a match. We were just man-handling each other to a huge extent.
“I was on Niall Gilligan, a big strapping lad and a quick fella. Honestly, the contest was which one of us was fouling the other one more! It was a really tough game.
“We were up by four points at half-time and hurling well. But knew Clare would come at us for the second half.”
Ryan had dominated Gilligan for most of the first half but the momentum of the match shifted subtly when Gilligan was moved into full-forward and scored two points in quick succession just before half-time.
Then, at half-time, Loughnane believes his players seized a psychological initiative that set them up for a second-half surge.
“The leadership of the likes of Daly and Lohan really showed at half-time, it was just incredible,” says Loughnane.
“I only had to go in and stand in by the door. I used to stand at the door and be watching around to see who was mentally switched on or off and who were the ones you could really rely on for the second-half.
“The fire that was in them to get out for the second-half! They knew the first-half wasn't good. The demands they made of each other in that dressing-room, you knew that unless something went badly wrong that you were going to win.
“All of that psychological training, it's amazing the way you might not think it's having an effect, but it did.
“That was the day I saw them really transformed into very, very serious leaders apart from being very good players. When you have that, you really have your team up to being capable of competing with anyone.
“That was the biggest psychological test of those players that they ever underwent. Babs was right, it would have thrown our reputation away if we lost that match.
“They all realised that. It was only at half-time when they came in and got a chance to get their breath that they could say, 'Jesus, lads, we're facing the trap-door here'.
“And then you saw them rise up and the men lead it. It's brilliant to see that in a dressing-room. Really then you see that your time has been a huge success, apart from the hurling side of it all. When you see men come to the edge of the cliff and they know what to do with themselves, it's brilliant.”
Liam Doyle made a statement by scoring a point just 16 seconds after the restart and it wasn’t long before Clare had wiped out Tipperary’s advantage.
Clare were now combining ferocious physicality in defence and the middle third with some composed shooting in attack, and Tipp were struggling to contain them.
Loughnane, too, played his part in their growing dominance with a canny substitution that saw him introduce David Forde as a roving third-midfielder.
Tipp decided to hold their defensive shape rather than pick up Forde and, in the final reckoning, it probably cost them.
“Ultimately I think Loughnane's tactics on the day won out,” admits Ryan. “They imposed their game on us. They had too many bodies for us around the middle.
“We didn't deal with David Forde when he came on. Instead of coming in corner-forward on me he stayed out in the middle of the field/half-forward line.
“I remember trying to go out to him and it's not that I was going to stop him or anything like that, but I was feeling really good and was basically saying, 'Let me out'.
“But we didn't want to expose our full-back line because we would have been wary of the speed they had in their forwards.
“And, in fairness, they engineered a goal in the Munster Final with that speed which was ultimately the defining score, so that's why we were wary.
“Our ploy that year was to always keep our full-back line intact and we would drop Michael Cleary deep to pick up any opposition player like Forde who would drop out to the middle of the field.
“The only problem was that in the All-Ireland Final Michael Cleary had been taken off and things didn't go to that plan. It just shows that with tactics everyone has to buy into it, and it just didn't work for us on the day.”
Even though Tipperary were dominated for long stretches of the second-half, they refused to die.
A substitute of their own, Liam Cahill, dragged them back into the match late in the half when he kicked a goal that reduced his team’s deficit to a single point.
And when Eugene O’Neill then doubled the sliotar to the back of the Clare net after Tommy Dunne’s ’65 came back off the cross-bar, the Premier County led by a point as the game ticked into injury-time.
It’s a testament to the character of that Clare team that they never panicked. Ollie Baker scored a point so quickly after that Tipperary goal that the TV cameras didn’t even capture it.
A minute later Jamesie O’Connor arced over what proved to the match-winning point.
“There was a calmness about it,” says Loughnane. “They knew what had to be done but it wasn't frenzied stuff. I remember going into Jamesie O'Connor that day in the second-half.
“He was being very well marked by Conal Bonner who chased him everywhere. I asked Jamesie would he switch wings, but he said, 'no, no, leave me where I am'. And he got the winning point then afterwards. So they had that kind of maturity and we had that kind of faith in them as well.
“The decisions they would make, you'd respect them, unless you knew they were totally off the wall.
“To be as clear-headed as that with so much at stake in front of a huge crowd on such a big occasion, that shows you have an exceptional group when they can do that.
“Especially when it comes from a place like Clare that hasn't a big tradition of winning All-Irelands.
“I'll just never forget that point. I can remember looking out to where he was under the Hogan Stand. It was a murky evening and I can still see the sky.
“I couldn't see the crowd or anything, I could just see the ball sailing in and watching it all the way going right in over the bar. I was beside the post and right beside Brendan Cummins who was just watching it going over too.
“When it did go over, I was saying, 'God, surely we have it now.' Then as I was walking round the corner flag in front of Hill 16 I saw John Leahy down at the other end going straight through. Jesus! I can still see it in slow-motion!
“And then Davy saving it. And better than just saving it, he didn't even concede the '65. Those moments I suppose do stay with you forever. And it's those moments that are the big reward for winning.
“Homecomings and everything that goes on are great, but it's those moments that give you that deep sense of satisfaction that few other things can give you in sport.”