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The Big Interview - Ger Loughnane

Ger Loughnane. 

Ger Loughnane. 

If the 1990s really were the ‘Revolution Years’ of hurling, then Clare manager Ger Loughane was the decade’s Che Guevara. He showed the established order of the game little respect as the Banner County came from nowhere to pull them from their perch in spectacular fashion. Clare’s All-Ireland Final win in 1995 was an unexpected ambush– their first Liam MacCarthy in 81 years – and they had no intention of retreating quietly back across the Shannon afterwards.

Loughnane was determined his team would leave a more lasting impression on the game than that, and they fulfilled the destiny he had mapped out for them by winning another All-Ireland in 1997. That Clare team will probably be remembered much longer though than many others that achieved even greater feats. It wasn’t just what they won, it was how they won, and the manner in which Loughnane’s abrasive leadership rose so many hackles along the way.

Twenty one years on from that seminal 1995 All-Ireland Final success, the Feakle man sat down with GAA.ie’s John Harrington this week for a wide-ranging discussion.

Never short of an opinion, among other things Loughnane talks about:

• What made that Clare team of the ‘90s great.

• The bitter rivalry between Clare and Tipperary in the ‘90s.

• Whey the current Clare team will not be respected unless they win another All-Ireland title

• Why Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack are marked men.

• Why Kilkenny shouldn’t be able to win another All-Ireland title this year but can.

• What other teams need to do to knock them from their perch

• The genius of Brian Cody

• Why there’s no guarantee Cork will ever regain their former status in the game.

• And why the 2016 All-Ireland Hurling Championship is such a crucial one.

Ger Loughnane celebrates with the Cup after Clare beat Limerick in the 1995 Munster SHC Final. 

Ger Loughnane celebrates with the Cup after Clare beat Limerick in the 1995 Munster SHC Final. 

John Harrington: It's 21 years now since you took charge of the Clare senior team for the first time and led them to the All-Ireland title against all expectations. When you look back now, what was the real starting point for you and that team?

Ger Loughnane: I think really the start of it was the U-21 team that Clare had in early '90s. I always regard that as the start of it because that was the first time I came into contact with the likes of Anthony Daly, Brian Lohan, Jamesie O'Connor, all of the lads who became iconic figures afterwards. I always looked on those lads as being exceptional people. They were good hurlers, but the quality of people they were was just exceptional. There was something about them. There was a leadership quality and a determination to succeed among them. An intelligence about them I'd say that I hadn't seen to the same extent in my own time as a player or anything else. At that time I said there was going to be a future with these fellas even though we didn't win at U-21 level. In the way they prepared for the game, the seriousness with which they took it, the ambition they had to succeed. That was one thing. And the confidence they had in that ambition as well was something you didn't see before.

JH: Where did it come from?

GL: I think a huge factor in it and I think it's something that is very badly overlooked by the GAA is the value of third-level hurling. The value of Fitzgibbon Cup hurling. It should never be underestimated. It's where you make the big transition from being a juvenile player to being a senior player. It's not at U-21 or minor, it's within that Fitzgibbon Cup. Where lads go away from their own county, start mixing with players from other counties, they see then what level they're at themselves and from that I think that is where they get their real taste for hurling.

If you take Brian Lohan for example who didn't play minor for Clare. He just transformed when he went to third-level. He became one of the great Fitzgibbon Cup players. He was a great Fitzgibbon Cup player before he was a senior hurler for Clare. I think that is a perfect example of the transformative effect that Fitzgibbon Cup hurling can have on players. The likes of Jamesie O'Connor and Seanie McMahon, all of those who went through the Fitzgibbon Cup experience, I think they gained a confidence from that and they gained an ambition from that. As a result of getting the confidence they realised they were as good as so many players from so many other counties. And when they were as good, they said 'why shouldn't we be as ambitious as those'?

I always look on that as really the start of that Clare hurling era. And when they came back then within a group and were displaying that ambition and confidence, suddenly others who maybe didn't play Fitzgibbon Cup hurling at all, but were at a good level and maybe better than Brian Lohan when they were minor, were thinking...

Brian Lohan in action for Clare.

Brian Lohan in action for Clare.

JH: If Brian can be like this then why not me?

GL: Exactly. So they saw then from that just what could be achieved. That was the seed and then it just started to grow and grow. It took a while to grow, it took a few years. But once they came to senior level when I took over at senior level...Len Gaynor's era in Clare was a transformative era, there's no doubt about that.

He had that confidence, coming from Tipperary. It came so easily to Tipperary, but I don't think Len realised the kind of preparation that was in Clare to come to the same level as Tipp. He often told a story about training for an All-Ireland and they were doing a few laps of the field. They were told to do six laps of the field but after doing about three John Doyle said, 'ah we've enough done now lads, we'll go in'. And they won the All-Ireland.

Coming from that, he brought that kind of confidence and the notion that people should expect to win. I think he had a great effect on all of those young lads. The likes of Anthony Daly, Brian Lohan, Liam Doyle, all of those who were in with him at that age. They saw that he took winning All-Irelands as being a right. That it wasn't something you should be afraid of. What dogged Clare in my experience anyway during my era was that there was never an expectation there to win an All-Ireland. There was a hope to maybe win a Munster Championship. That was the limit of the ambition that was there.

So between those four or five years with Len's time in Clare and the effect that the Fitzgibbon Cup had on so many of those Clare players, that was the gradual growth of confidence first of all, and then ambition. So by the time I took over, even though it was after terrible defeats in Munster Finals, which often happens, I think it didn't dent that ambition. So when they came in to a regime that was going to demand more and demand a new way of doing things, they absolutely thrived on that. That was the whole thing. They just thrived on that. And they just rowed in behind it. They said whatever you want, no matter what you demand off us, you won't break us.

That's the difference I saw between that and later on in Galway (Loughane managed Galway from 2007-2008). There was none of that in Galway. They'd nearly be pulling against you. The more you'd demand off them, the more they'd try to evade it. Whereas in Clare the more you demanded of them the more determined they were that you'd never get the better of them.

They didn't allow anyone to get the better of them in training, and we had ferocious matches in training, but there was no such thing as give in. They just wanted to achieve. And it was driven by the key men there. The drivers of the thing were people like Lohan, like Seanie McMahon, like Daly, like Jamesie O'Connor, and 'The Sparrow' (Ger O'Loughlin). Then you had a new breed that came in behind them again. Like Ollie Baker, Frank Lohan, and Michael O'Halloran. They came in and drove it on further again. It's amazing that if the men up front are ambitious and demanding, everyone else underneath them will be the same.

Len Gaynor.

Len Gaynor.

JH: You saw the possibilities when they were U-21. Presumably that's why you were so determined to become Clare senior manager even though it was never a fait accompli that you were ever going to get it?

GL: It was a massive battle to get it. That was the hardest battle, to actually get in charge. And it's understandable as well. Because you see this in all counties that don't achieve. People get very pessimistic and it's nearly in-built in them that any people of our own won't be able to do it, we'll have to get an outsider to help. That's understandable. Because if you've a 100 year history of not achieving, then it's very understandable that your own people won't think you can achieve with your own people.

It was an awful battle, and it was a political battle really. I was very, very lucky that the late Brendan Vaughan was the County Board Chairman at that time. We had many battles on the sideline at schools matches in Shannon because he was in a different school to me, but he had always said that if Clare were going to get anywhere with this group of players and the talent that was there, he had identified me as the person who would be best to lead that. He was determined that I would get the job. I was with Len for a year (as selector) then I was sacked and went with the U-21s, then I was out of the thing completely for a year, then he (Vaughan) came to me again. He came with this plan that when Len would give up that he would ensure that I would become the manager. So I was back in with Len for a year as selector and then I became manager. But only for Brendan Vaughan I definitely would never have gotten it.

JH: Might history have been very different in that case?

GL: Maybe they might still have achieved, but I wouldn't have had a part in it only for that. That's the way in so many counties. There should be someone in every county who could make a massive contribution, but they're often overlooked because of the history of defeats and the debilitating effect that has and the lack of confidence among their own that people get in the weaker county then.

JH: Why had you no lack of self-confidence? You clearly had the same mind-set as these young players coming through. Did you see the same thing in them that you had within yourself? Why did you feel so strongly that Clare could be successful?

GL: The reason I felt it was because my own personality was that I always loved the big matches when I played with Clare. The Munster Final was the biggest we got. League Finals, whatever. It was the big Munster Championship matches that I got a real taste for. From that then came the ambition to realise what effect that would have on Clare people if you could win a Munster Championship. Just once, even. As the song goes, 'to win just once'.

I got a taste having played in five senior Munster Finals and seeing the crowds and the atmosphere around it. The realisation from that of what it would be like for Clare to actually win one. So when I didn't achieve myself as a player, there was always that burning desire to just see what it would be like to actually do it. Having come so close to it so many times. I suppose that's what kept the ambition within myself to see Clare actually achieving and what effect it would have on the whole county if we did achieve.

Ger Loughnane in action for Clare against Tipperary in 1997.

Ger Loughnane in action for Clare against Tipperary in 1997.

JH: You mentioned how Len Gaynor had the Tipperary attitude that winning All-Irelands was a right, which was something that didn't come as naturally to Clare people. Did you feel the need to project a similar sort of attitude in an extra-loud fashion in order to get the players to truly believe it?

GL: The first thing I thought about was that we wouldn't win if we did the same as everybody else. Because in the history of Clare we had never won by doing the same as everybody else. We had to do something completely different in order to win. Since (Kevin) Heffernan and Mick O'Dwyer had come into the football side of it years earlier I had watched close what they had done. They had changed a whole way of preparation. But nobody in hurling had done that to the same extent. So there was a gap in the market. I always looked at it that way, that there was a gap in the market. If you prepared in such a way that you could play with such high intensity that no-one else could match. All Clare needed to do that was to up the pace of their hurling.

I had looked at my own career all the way back and in League matches we'd do really well. We won two Leagues, we were always really competitive, and we could beat anybody in the League. But when it came to the Championship when the ground dried up and the game speeded up we were always found wanting. And we made excuses when we lost Munster Finals narrowly. It was always easy to make excuses. You could blame referees, occasions, this and that. But really the bottom line was we weren't able to compete when the game speeded up to a certain speed.

In order to get up to that we had to get to a totally different level physically. And then hurling-wise we had to speed up our hurling to a level we had never done before. They were the first two things really that had to be done. They were the initial things we addressed, and once they were up to that level, it's surprising then the confidence that players got. When they saw that no-one was going to out-last them, no-one was going to out-fight them - the sort of thing you'd often hear now with Kilkenny - no-one was going out out-battle them. And the skill-level even of players who weren't brilliant skilful, it increased massively over the three, four, five years. They were the steps to be taken first. And then once you had that players themselves became convinced that anything was attainable after that.

It's not you saying something to get players to believe. People make this mistake that you can say something to make the players believe. The belief has to come from within themselves. And the belief came from the preparation. From the type of preparation they did. And they knew that nobody else at that time was preparing to that kind of level. The gap was there and we just charged into the gap while it was open.

Ger Loughnane is congratulated by supporters after Clare defeated Galway in the 1995 All-Ireland SHC Final.

Ger Loughnane is congratulated by supporters after Clare defeated Galway in the 1995 All-Ireland SHC Final.

JH: Did the players eat it up like hungry dogs or did they need to be convinced?

GL: When you look back now from this distance, the brilliant thing about the Clare lads was that the demands were absolutely very high. The training was extreme at times. Especially the match situations in training. It was extreme. But the leaders on the team never flinched. They never flinched. And when other fellas were beginning to doubt or beginning to wilt, whatever about the fellas in charge of the team, they couldn't wilt in the face of the leaders.

They were iron-tough, the leaders. They just had an iron will. And it was they who kept everybody else in line. And everybody bought into it because the leaders bought into it. That is the message that should go out to the weaker counties that don't achieve much - you have to get leaders within the team that will back the management to the very hilt, no matter how extreme the demands are. And then everybody else will row in. That's what happened really with Clare. The effort they put in in training was just incredible, when I look back now.

JH: You used the word 'extreme' to describe those training matches. Just how extreme were they?

GL: Those training matches were just crazy. Because there were no rules. Fellas were getting injured, falling down, being ignored. Driven to the point of total exhaustion, and then got up and asked to do more afterwards. It was very, very, very extreme. I don't think you could do it nowadays. I don't think you could do the same thing now because there are so many other people involved. You have to remember here that there were only three people on the side-line. Now Clare have 30 in the backroom team. Back then, you had three.

In that way I suppose it was very close in one way as well. It was very close. But at the same time the players always knew that we had total respect for them. That was the whole bloody thing. There was total respect for the players. But it also had to be constantly driven home to them that we had to do things differently if we wanted to get different results to what Clare had got in the past. That was whole idea behind the whole thing. The whole philosophy behind it. We weren't going to achieve anything different unless we did things differently.

JH: As a manager, were you conscious that you needed to up your game too? Were you always looking for some sort of edge and willing to do whatever it took to get it?

GL: That was the thing. The first year you're in, everything goes well. And the next thing the bandwagon began to roll. Now, we had set-backs in the 1995 League Final against Kilkenny. That was a big psychological blow to overcome. They just hammered us really in hurling terms. My wife was coming out after the match and Phil Hogan was behind here and just said 'different class'. Kilkenny were just different class. That would really rile you. It was amazing that afterwards we would win the All-Ireland and Kilkenny were out of it.

But, anyway, the first year you're there when we got on a roll, won the Munster Final and won the All-Ireland, everything is great. But I always said that you had to win the second All-Ireland. Especially the way we won it (in 1995). We hadn't beaten Tipp and we hadn't beaten Kilkenny. There is one thing about winning an All-Ireland, but then when you have won it there's an honour thing. It's kind of unspoken, but you'll hear it. It's said in a kind of silent way, that you're not really a team unless you have proven it.

We were beaten then in 1996 by Limerick in the Munster Championship. Definitely among the three biggest occasions I was ever involved in. It was a fantastic occasion.

The 1995 All-Ireland winning Clare team.

The 1995 All-Ireland winning Clare team.

JH: Ye should have won that match?

GL: We probably should have won the game, but maybe wouldn't have won the All-Ireland if we did. And then having that year off and the next year I regarded as being crucial to the reputation of the players that had won the All-Ireland in 1995. The preparation for 1997 was way, way more difficult than it was in 1995.

JH: In what way?

GL: To win the second All-Ireland, psychologically, teams that don't achieve very much, once they achieve, they get very easily satisfied. 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.

I've already said that Munster semi-final against Limerick in 1996 was one of the biggest occasions, but I would always say too that the Munster Final in 1997 was the greatest occasion of all. The satisfaction out of beating Tipp in that Munster Final was just absolutely immense.

JH: Did you have to really drive it home to the players just how vital that 1997 campaign was, or were they as naturally motivated as you were?

GL: What that year turned into was...as you said earlier...you use everything you can think of. 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. 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.

JH: Was that the day around 18,000 were packed into Cusack Park?

GL: 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 (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.

Clare supporters pictured at the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

Clare supporters pictured at the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

JH: More grist to your mill so?

GL: It was, it was. I think it was from then that the great era of Tipp-Clare rivalry begun. Which was absolutely fantastic for the game. The crowds that came to those games...and it wasn't just the crowds that came, but the atmosphere it generated. The atmosphere of rivalry that people nowadays wouldn't even understand. Because you don't see the same absolutely savagery of the rivalry between supporters.

JH: It was totally different to the current climate.

GL: It was totally different. You'd have grown up in that era and you'd have seen what it was. People like me became hate figures in Tipperary! The shouting there was at the games and the level of noise was just brilliant.

JH: It was a different sort of noise, even.

GL: ***It was a different sort of noise. It was just brilliant. And it led to an electric atmospheres at those games. That Munster Final in '97 epitomised that era. 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.

I remember there was a function on in Ennis a while after the All-Ireland Final and the last 20 minutes of that game were shown at the end of the function. The bar was open and it was just meant to be a background sort of thing. But people just sat down, transfixed again. It was almost as if they were back in Croke Park again. It was one of the most tense finishes ever to an All-Ireland. You know, with John Leahy getting the chance at the end and Davy saving it.

JH: Just like the Munster Final.

GL: Just like the Munster Final. I mean, it was epic stuff. There was nothing between the teams.

The Clare team that won the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

The Clare team that won the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

JH: So when you have to play Tipp again, were you determined to get some sort of new edge? Anthony Daly gave his famous 'whipping boys' speech after the Munster Final win which prompted the then Tipperary PRO, Liz Howard, to criticise him for using that term. You then had a go back by sending an open letter to the Clare Champion. Were you doing your best to keep the rivalry ratcheted up?

GL: Absolutely, that was the whole thing, you see. Because the Nicky English thing was used up by the Munster Final (English had famously smiled after scoring a point for Tipp when they hammered Clare in the 1993 Munster Final. Loughnane played it up as an act of disrespect and used it to fire up his players).

One thing with players is you can't be false. You can't create a false devil. It can't be false. If you revisit something you've already used before, then it's no good. You had to get something new. And Liz Howard gave it to us.

JH: I'd say you couldn't believe your luck.

GL: Exactly! She gave us the perfect thing with the interview she gave in, I think, the Sunday Independent. That was exactly what was needed. Because if you remember that year in the semi-final against Kilkenny we started to wilt in the second-half. 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'. So we needed something else to get everyone up to that level. What was amazing about that All-Ireland was, and this will give you an insight again into the leadership in that team I was talking about, at half-time we went in after playing very poorly in the first-half. But the leadership of the likes of Daly and Lohan really showed at half-time. It was just incredible.

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.

JH: Ye had to be very good in '97, because Tipperary pushed ye all the way in that All-Ireland Final.

GL: Absolutely. You had to get back up there even though the team's level seemed to be going down. It's like a race-horse, usually the only way you do that is with a rest, but we didn't have time to rest. You couldn't rest. So it had to be psychological. 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.

Anthony Daly is congratulated by Clare supporters after the 1995 All-Ireland SHC Final.

Anthony Daly is congratulated by Clare supporters after the 1995 All-Ireland SHC Final.

JH: Eugene O'Neill scored a late goal for Tipperary that put them a point up. But from the puck-out Ollie Baker scored a point so quickly the TV cameras missed it to level the game, and then Jamesie O'Connor hit the winner. Did that reaction after O'Neill's goal sum up how mentally strong that Clare team was?

GL: There was a calmness about it. 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 Raymie Ryan 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 suppose after that then it was always going to be a struggle to ever get up to that level again.

JH: You were walking right behind the Tipperary goals when Jamesie hit that winning point. When you look back on your life, is that memory one you'll always cherish?

GL: I'll just never forget that. 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.

Jamesie O'Connor pictured after the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final.

Jamesie O'Connor pictured after the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final.

JH: 1997 irrevocably changed the relationship between the two counties, didn't it?

GL: The thing about Tipp was, they were the Kings of Hurling along with Kilkenny and Cork. Deep down, all during my youth, we would have been massive supporters of Tipperary in All-Ireland Finals because they were near and you knew all the Tipperary players. You go back to the era of Tony Wall, Jimmy Doyle, and John Doyle and all of those, Donie Nealon, sure, listen, they were the players you looked up to. It would have been inconceivable to us growing up that we would ever be on the same plane as them. Really, I suppose when it came to 1997 it did change the relationship in Clare and Tipp in that Tipperary people, knowing their hurling, now had a huge respect for Clare.

But there were three years, 1997, '98, and '99, when there was just unbelievable conflict between the two counties. It was just unreal the atmosphere those matches used to generate, even insignificant League games. Even two years later in 1999 when we drew with them in the Munster Championship down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and then beat them in the replay, the atmosphere in those two games, it was just an exceptional era.

If anybody wants to know just how bad the rivalry was, in '98 when we were eventually beaten by Offaly in Semple Stadium in Thurles, that time you'd have to come home through Nenagh. Through Borrisoleigh and on to Nenagh all the people were out cheering, delighted that Clare were beaten! That'll just tell you how bad it was! It was just brilliant in one way. Jesus, like, there they were absolutely delighted that Clare were buried, that Clare were beaten. That's the great thing about rivalry. And I think when that goes out of the game, the game loses something. When the edge to that rivalry goes, when it's just another game, it's not as good for players or supporters.

JH: Was that 1999 replay victory over Tipperary the greatest performance of all that Clare team produced?

GL: Yeah, I'd say that replay was probably the best performance we ever gave. We played three midfielders that day and two in the full-forward line which was unusual for that time and it worked an absolute treat. We gave an exhibition that day, brilliant play. The problem was that Jamesie broke his arm in that game. After that, without Jamesie, and then Ollie Baker got injured with his ankle. Baker was just a savage, like. He played in the Munster Final and the played in the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final that year really with his ankle gone. He shouldn't have been playing at all, but he was just that type of player.

Until then I suppose we had huge luck because in the years we won we never had any injuries. We never had a serious injury to any of our key players. But when we did start encountering injuries later on, then we weren't as effective. You couldn't be as effective without Jamesie O'Connor or Ollie Baker. Nowadays you can miss a player and you can carry on without them because panels are so big and strong. But we didn't have the strength in depth that time. Once you were missing those you were always going to struggle, even though the character of the team always remained the very same.

That was the great thing about it. For a short era there was a mentality there in Clare that was very similar to the mentality you have in Kilkenny now. Except Kilkenny are able to maintain that over a longer period. But there was that type of mentality. The absolute courage to never give in no matter what. We were down by ten points in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway one year and we drew the game. Clare just wouldn't do that one time. There was a whole change of mentality, but the main people responsible for that were your key men in the team.

That is the whole lesson from that era. That anyone that wants to achieve, it has to start from within. And unless it comes from the leaders within the team, then you won't come at all. And I think that's the big fault with Galway. That they've never got a core group of leaders that have put their total faith in a manager and driven in behind him no matter what he demands in order to get results. Clare had that, and that's what made the difference.

Clare's Ollie Baker chased by Tipperary's Tommy Dunne in the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

Clare's Ollie Baker chased by Tipperary's Tommy Dunne in the 1997 All-Ireland SHC Final. 

JH: When Tipperary finally beat Clare in 2000, relief was the predominant emotion in the county. What was the feeling in Clare?

GL: There was no sense of disappointment. Now we were equals. If anything showed what happened in that era, it was when Clare were beaten in 2000. There was no sense of inferiority or huge disappointment. You were just beaten and you had come to the end of an era. Tipp had beaten you, fair play to them, that was it. We had great days against them, now they beat us, there was nothing bad in it.

There was no triumphalism from Tipperary. It was an evening of respect. We had respect for them and now they had respect for Clare that Clare people would never have experienced from Tipperary before and I think it has remained the same ever since. Clare are now seen as one of the real forces of the game which they wouldn't have been seen as before because they lost so many big games so often. Naturally enough people's respect goes down for you when that happens. Now that team had proven just exactly the kind of resilience that Tipperary had shown so often down through their history. It was only by doing things like that that Clare could earn that respect. And by the time they were beaten in 2000 you could see that that respect was there. And then you said, right, shake hands, we're evens now, and let someone else take it on from here. That was the attitude really.

JH: You said earlier that Clare team would not have earned that sort of respect had they not backed up the 1995 All-Ireland win with another in 1997. Does the same hold true for the current team if they do not back up their 2013 All-Ireland win?

GL: Absolutely. These lads need to do it all the more because they haven't won a Munster Championship. They have won what that silent majority are saying was a handy All-Ireland or a lucky All-Ireland. Now, four teams came to a semi-final, the two best teams were out of it, Tipp and Kilkenny, the four teams left had an equal chance of winning it, but it was Clare with Davy Fitz that won it. Whether it was handy or not, it was still an All-Ireland. There have been a lot of handy All-Irelands won down through the years. But having done that, you have the All-Ireland, now you have to win something more important. You have to win respect.

And that is the fear in Clare. That this team will go by without getting the kind of respect that Clare got by winning what they did in the nineties. It is absolutely vital for them, not alone to win an All-Ireland, but that they do it by winning all the way through. By winning the Munster Championship and then the All-Ireland. They have to do that to gain the respect of the hurling community of Ireland. Now, you'd have the yahoos all over the place saying it's great to have one an All-Ireland, and it is great, but there is a sub-culture that is much more important than popular culture. And the sub-culture says that unless you do it and win that second one and win it by winning a Munster Final clean all the way through, you won't get the respect of the hurling community until you do that. That's why it's so important for the present generation in Clare to really stand up now. They're at the perfect age now. With so many people in their backroom and so much help they're getting, this is their chance to show what they're really made of.

Shane O'Donnell celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after Clare's victory in the 2013 All-Ireland SHC Final replay. 

Shane O'Donnell celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after Clare's victory in the 2013 All-Ireland SHC Final replay. 

JH: Clare play Tipperary on Sunday in Cusack Park. Both teams would feel like they have a point to prove this year. Is there a chance that an unmerciful contest between the two of them in this match might reignite the heat that was in the rivalry in the 1990s and set us up for a big summer?

GL: Absolutely. And I think especially now that Clare have Davy and Donal Og in charge of them. Now you have two very high-profile figures in charge of the team. And when you have that you obviously have everyone coming to try to take them down. All opposition, especially when it comes to the Championship, they will not alone be playing Clare, they'll be playing Davy and Donal Óg. You saw over the last two years how teams fired themselves up for playing against Davy. So they'll be really fired up to play against Davy and Donal Óg. Now, I know there are a lot of other people in the background as well, but those are the two that other teams will focus on. With the increased profile that's there, it's going to ratchet up the competition. And hopefully if Clare do start to show real promise, that's only when you'll see everything build up again. If Clare beat Waterford in the Championship this year for example and then meet Tipp in the Munster Final, then I think you'll be very much back to the atmosphere amongst supporters that you had in the nineties.

JH: You mentioned that ferocious League game between Clare and Tipperary in Ennis in 1997 when both teams were trying to lay down a marker. Could we see something similar on Sunday?

GL: The big problem with Sunday is that Clare are missing so many players. That's just a pity. I do think that Sunday would be one of those occasions if Clare had their full team or close to their full team. But they're missing McInerney and Kelly, they would be two of the key leaders in the team now. If they weren't missing those, you'd say so, but I do think if Clare have their full team in the Championship this year then they will be very serious contenders for the All-Ireland. You can see among the group there's a new level of enthusiasm and spirit. I do think they realise that there's two years gone down the drain and they can't afford another one. So I'm certain that this year in the Munster Championship we'll see a totally different Clare team than we saw over the last two years.

JH: What is the general feeling amongst supporters in Clare? As you say, the last two years have gone down the drain. Has Davy lost much of the good will he built up by winning the 2013 All-Ireland? Is this perceived as a make or break year?

GL: There are two different things here. Within the group themselves, the players and all the people involved, it seems to me that there is a fantastic spirit. A fantastic, energetic, and confident approach to this year. People are still suspicious about the possession game. And even with Donal Og coming in, he is also a disciple of a possession game rather than a passing game. So people are still afraid that Clare will overdo the possession game again. Especially among their backs. And that it won't be direct enough. Having such talented forwards won't be great unless they're getting the ball. So there is an unwillingness among the crowd yet to get involved.

JH: A watch and see approach?

GL: Exactly. Very much a watch and see approach. And those who went to the earlier League games were very discouraged by what they saw. I wasn't at the Laois game, but I saw the game against Limerick. I was encouraged by what I saw that day considering all the players Clare were missing. And also because some of the players who didn't perform for the last couple of years had a new spring in their step completely. Conlon, Conor McGrath, Colm Galvin, who would be key men for Clare. To see them having a new spring in their step, I'd get great confidence from that.

I do think they're keeping their powder dry. I think Davy is really putting all his eggs in the Championship basket this year. He knows that the way to win the All-Ireland is four games. Waterford, Munster Final, Semi-Final, and Final. He'll get them up to a really good level. I'd say they're very confident they'll be able to do that, but they don't want to start too soon. Now, I might be totally wrong, but that's what I see their approach being.

Davy Fitzgerald pictured when Clare hurling manager in 2016.

Davy Fitzgerald pictured when Clare hurling manager in 2016.

JH: How about Tipperary? Where do you think they are?

GL: I've seen all of Tipperary's games so far. I think there is no team in Ireland more skilful than Tipperary. That's the way I'd look at Tipp. The level of skill they have is just fantastic. However, I would say, their half-back line that they're playing at the moment - Barry Heffernan and the two Mahers (Paudie and Ronan). There's no doubt about it that Ronan Maher is a terrific hurler. He's a terrific hurler. But can you get away with a half-back line with so little pace as you have in those three?

That must still be worrying Michael Ryan. He knows the scene better than I do, but looking in from the outside it's the way I'd see it. Can you get away with those three in the half-back line? Even though they're three really good hurlers, there's a huge lack of pace. When you see Joe Canning's goal above in Galway, like, Joe Canning shouldn't be running away from two half-backs and opening up a gap on them. Then, even the last day against Cork, Conor Lehane just left Ronan Maher absolutely for dead. And Barry Heffernan is slower than that again. So can you get away with that half-back line?

Is Michael Breen as good as he's looking at midfield? He seems to be the ideal Michael Fennelly type for midfield and it seems a great combination between himself and Brendan Maher at midfielder. Really, really good. I would still say that with the game they're playing now, the change of tactics, the more direct approach, two ball-winners in the forwards is absolutely vital. Are they going to again be Bonner Maher and Seamie Callanan? Are they still going to be those two? Seeing as in the replay two years ago, Kilkenny cleaned them out in the All-Ireland.

So with all the skill, and they have plenty, I think they are the most skilful team and the team you'd like watching most, but there are still positions that you'd say are under question. The biggest advantage that they have apart from their skill, and this goes back to Eamon O'Shea, who I was critical of as a manager but would never be critical of as a coach, is their speed of thought. No other team apart from Kilkenny has the same speed of thought. In other words, where forwards get into positions and change positions and are in a position to take a pass and give a pass at pace. It's at a different level I think to every other team. But for all the possession they have, and they should have won all their League games, will the deficiencies in the half-back line and in the lack of ball-winners, can they overcome those two deficiencies? If they do, I think they will win the All-Ireland.

Tipperary hurler, John O'Dwyer. 

Tipperary hurler, John O'Dwyer. 

JH: Once again, are we in a situation where there are question-marks or what ifs about every team other than Kilkenny. You know exactly what you're going to get from Kilkenny and it has won them the last two All-Irelands. They might not have the players they once did, but they are solid and you know what you're going to get and there's no what ifs.

GL: I would say this. Looking at Kilkenny now and their personnel, there is no way that Kilkenny should be winning the All-Ireland. There is no way this Kilkenny team should be going for three-in-a-row. Three-in-a-rows were so hard to get before Brian Cody came along. And teams that won three-in-a-rows were legendary teams. Now the present Kilkenny team is functional beyond belief, and they're getting the best out of what they have to an extent that no-one else could do other than Brian Cody. But, at the same time, a team with that talent should not be winning an All-Ireland. I have no problem in saying that. They should not be winning an All-Ireland with that team. Totally dependant on TJ Reid, one forward, and maybe Richie Hogan as well.

The danger of course is that the longer they go on the harder it will be to beat them. Will Mick Fennelly come back even if it's only for a few games? Eoin Larkin will be back again. The longer they go on, the bit more difficult they'll be to beat. I think if they're not stopped in an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final, then they won't be stopped on the first Sunday in September. That's the point where you must stop them.

Who'll stop them there? Maybe Clare could stop them at that juncture. At a semi-final or quarter-final. But they have to be stopped there because once they get into the All-Ireland Final at all they're able to deal with the occasion and they're able to produce a display in an All-Ireland Final. Cody can get so much out of them and time his run to get them at their very peak for the All-Ireland that nobody else can reach. No matter what backroom they have or expertise they have, they can't match the instinct of Cody. He's just a once-off, totally exceptional person in charge of a team. What he can get out of players is remarkable.

JH: In some ways have the last two All-Irelands been his greatest achievements of all because he doesn't have the quality of player he once did?

GL: You can't put in words the greatness of Cody. But how you can even begin to start to measure it is the incredible consistency of performance of his teams over the whole era he's been in charge. How many sub-standard performances did they produce in big games? You wouldn't need a hand to count them in the 15 years or whatever he's been in charge. The absolute level of consistency of high performance and getting the best out of players is just extraordinary. And the culture he has created within Kilkenny. The hurling culture he has created there. What every other county wouldn't give to have a culture like that. That every young lad from the time he's able to walk, his ambition is to get a hurley first of all and then improve himself to the extent that he can get on the county team.

If only other counties could have a culture like that, hurling would be in Shangri La. If you could have that kind of thing because you'd have such competition. I suppose it all comes from his own personality. The consistency of his own personality. He never does or says anything that's not in keeping with his own personality. To maintain that for 15 years can't be fake. It has to be totally and utterly genuine. He's an extraordinary person. Just an extraordinary person who has created an extraordinary culture within his own county and it's from that then that everything else stems. If only other counties could get something like that.

Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody.

Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody.

JH: Would you like to have pitted yourself against Brian Cody on the side-line over an extended period of time?

GL: You could say I was glad I was never pitted against Cody! I'm glad, because knowing Brian he wouldn't be rattled. I spent a year in College with Brian and I know the type of person he is and the utter faith he has in himself, but above all in Kilkenny hurling. 'There are always good hurlers in Kilkenny' - that was his mantra when he was 19 years of age. 'Always plenty of good hurlers in Kilkenny'. This team reflects that belief. All these people retire, it doesn't knock a feather out of him because there are 'always plenty of good hurlers in Kilkenny'. Something I heard him say numerous times when he was 19 years of age. And he obviously believes that all the time.

He can bring Shane Prendergast at the age of 29 years into an All-Ireland Final, sure not a bother. Now, what other county could do that? What other manager could do that? He has this aura about him now that if he puts faith in you, then your confidence shoots up completely. Because of that, Kilkenny have won the last two All-Irelands. And because of that, to break them in the knock-out stages, you'll just get once chance at it. No use beating them in the Leinster Final, it has to be quarter-final or semi-final. That's why they're favourites. They're favourites because of Cody. They wouldn't be favourites because of their personnel. They're favourites because of the man in charge. To break that is going to be very, very hard. But isn't it time somebody did it all the same.

JH: Does Brian Cody intimidate other managers? Are opposition teams intimidated by Kilkenny's success? Does intimidation come into it at all?

GL: It doesn't, no. The utter faith that the Kilkenny players have as a result of the influence of Cody is what is so hard to break. It's not anything Brian says or does. He doesn't haven't to say or do anything. It's what they have as a result of Cody, that's what makes them so hard to beat. You saw them when they were six points down to Cork below in Cork. They weren't a bit ruffled, they just had a go at it, and they won it. And when they won it, it was no big deal. That utter belief they have in themselves is what's going to be hardest to break. And the longer their winning streak goes on, the more difficult it will become. You have to ask who can break it? Tipperary came closest. Why? Because they regard themselves as Kilkenny's equals.

The big loss to my mind is Cork. The decline of Cork is absolutely alarming. And when you look at it now, it's not a temporary decline. It's something you fear might get even worse before it gets better. Or ‘will it get better?’ is the big question. Will it ever come back again? You look at the decline of hurling in the City, and it's the City clubs that were the basis of all of Cork's might in the past. It's alright to say, 'ah, sure Cork will always be back'. But will they? When you look at the structures within Cork, will it come back? I know they're very strong now at U-14 and U-15 but that's a very young age and it will take a while to come through and will it ever come back to what it was before? It would be a massive blow to hurling if Cork don't remain a powerhouse in the game.

Because the likes of Clare, Waterford, and Limerick have come a long way but they tend to come in phases. Whereas Cork and Tipp and Kilkenny never relied on phases. They might have an odd patch when they were down, but they were down as a result of being beaten by one of the other. They weren't down as a result of being beaten by Clare, Waterford and Limerick. That's what looks worst for Cork right now - they're not down because of Tipp and Kilkenny, they're down because of Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Galway, and Clare who have being beating them easily. That would never have happened in the past.

Brian Cody is congratulated by selector Michael Dempsey, left, and Coundy Board County Board Chairman Ned Quinn after victory over Tipperary in the 2013 All-Ireland SHC. 

Brian Cody is congratulated by selector Michael Dempsey, left, and Coundy Board County Board Chairman Ned Quinn after victory over Tipperary in the 2013 All-Ireland SHC. 

JH: Kilkenny put a massive effort into their underage structures when they had a blip in the 1990s and now have the best system in the country. Is that why they have moved clear of the pack?

GL: If you look at the Kilkenny website the week of the All-Ireland they might have a small bit announcing their team, but the main thing will be updates about their development squads and their various meetings. It's just taking care of what's important for the future. And Ned Quinn (Kilkenny County Board Chairman) has been so influential in that. Ned Quinn was the man who recruited Brian Cody. He's a fellow who was so successful outside of hurling and brought that brain and intellect to bear on the game in Kilkenny.

The next generation is all that matters in Kilkenny, that's their whole mantra. They're all watching out for who's coming next. When they had Tommy Walsh they were looking for the next Tommy Walsh. And you see the culture that's within St. Kieran's that we've heard about so much this week. Is there any place in Cork that has that culture? There isn't. And why shouldn't there be with their hurling tradition?

At least in Tipperary you see Liam Cahill (Tipperary minor manager) not being fooled by what he saw last year even though they go to the All-Ireland minor final. He saw the same as all of us did looking out that these were not really Tipperary hurlers. They haven't the skill or movement that Tipperary hurlers have, so we'll have to get players who will concentrate totally on hurling. At least Tipp are making every effort to keep their status within the game. Cork totally took their eye off the ball and as a result they're now paying the penalty. And hurling is all the worse for it. There is nothing better than playing good Cork teams in Championship games, but now the Clares, the Limericks, and Waterfords don't even fear Cork. They have lost their place in the hurling world, and it's very disappointing.

JH: You said how counties like Clare, Waterford, and Limerick tend to only come in phases. But at underage level they have been dominant in Munster in recent years. Could we see a long-term shift in the balance of power in the Province away from the 'Big Two' of Cork and Tipperary and the establishment of a new hierarchy?

GL: The long-term shift will come, and another team could become a real force. I think Limerick could become a real force in time because their underage structure is second to none. It's professional and professionally run. Now, you take Clare for example. My ambition for Clare was to see Clare become one of the real forces in the game. Now, you won an All-Ireland, but you didn't win a Munster Championship in 2013. And if you take the 2000s in Clare, without the backdoor system the 2000s, from 2000 to now, would be the worst era ever in Clare. Because I think they have won only one or two Munster Championship games. They've only been in one Munster Final and that was because Limerick were on strike and they lost it. Why haven't they progressed on?

Last year Brian Lohan said there should be a review of hurling in Clare but was shot down. When I was inside last Sunday week watching Clare and Limerick I was looking out at the teams and Clare were totally on top. They were better than Limerick but only won by four points so you'd ask, 'why?' I'll tell you why, and this is where people have the idea that the underage structures in Clare are brilliant, three of the Clare forwards playing against Limerick were totally one-sided. In other words, they couldn't hit the ball under pressure off their weaker side. Couldn't hit it at all now, any distance with accuracy.

Five of the six forwards couldn't win the ball in the air. Would that happen in Kilkenny? No. Why doesn't it happen? Because of their coaching system. They're eliminating all of those faults. I backed Brian Lohan on this because this is what I wanted to see discussed in Clare. Why aren't we producing more skilful players? They’re brilliant if they get plenty of space against Cork defences, but when you play against Kilkenny and Tipperary you're not going to get that type of space.

Why aren't we producing players? Is there some fault in those structures that needs to be investigated? And would we be better off spending more time ensuring those faults were eliminated at U-14, U-15, and U-16 instead of trying to win the Munster U-14 or U-16? We should be getting a better balance between big, physical players and smaller players.

In my opinion, there's too much emphasis in Clare on the small, fast, skilful player. And not enough in the development of big, physical men who'll be needed in Croke Park on big days. This is the kind of things we want to discuss, but it was completely shot down. While counties like Clare have a mind-set like that, their periods of dominance will always come in phases. Kilkenny will never have that because they will see it straight away. The ordinary Kilkenny hurling person will see a fault in a player from a mile away. He'll be in the back row of the stand and he'll see it. Clare people don't see that. So it takes time to develop that kind of expertise, but it also takes proper planning. You can give the impression that everything is great and the structures are great. But the proof of how good the structures are is not what you win at minor level, it's the kind of senior players you produce. And we're not doing that.

I think Limerick will. Theirs is a more professional approach altogether. Waterford will always come in phases as well. The danger is that Tipp will revert to coming in phases. And then you'll be left with only Kilkenny consistently at that level. That's the big danger. And Galway, who are typical of this thing of winning minors, getting the shortest way possible to a minor final and winning plenty of them, what good is that?

In fairness to Jeffrey Lynskey who was in charge of their minor team last year, he is first Galway person I heard say their aim is to produce hurlers of senior standard for Galway. Brilliant to hear that from a fella in charge of a minor team. His ambition wasn't to win a minor All-Ireland, and they did great to win it, it was to produce hurlers that will be effective senior inter-county hurlers. That should always be the aim of the inter-county structure, not just winning.

The Limerick U21 hurlers celebrate after their victory in the 2015 All-Ireland Final. 

The Limerick U21 hurlers celebrate after their victory in the 2015 All-Ireland Final. 

JH: The 1990s were a great decade for a game because there were so many genuine competitors. We thought the 2013 All-Ireland Championship might herald a return to that sort of era when Clare, Cork, Dublin, and Limerick reached the All-Ireland semi-finals, but the Kilkenny empire has struck back since then. And when you look at how well Kilkenny are set up in every way possible compared to their competitors, are we ever going to get another era like the 1990s or is it just going to be more of the same in the coming years?

GL: I would think that this year and next year will tell us a lot about that. If Kilkenny can win an All-Ireland this year and one next year, then people are really in trouble. Because the group they have coming, the minors they had two years ago and the group they have coming along behind that now, are going to be the next Tommy Walshes. What's coming resembles the sort of players they brought through with their 2003, 2004 and 2005 U-21 teams that produced all the stars. That's what they have coming. So if teams cannot stop them now, what's going to happen three or four years down the road? That's what you have to be looking at, down the road. 
How well prepared are the rest? Are they (Kilkenny) going to have the All-Ireland for themselves? That wouldn’t be good for the game. And it wouldn't be good for Kilkenny either.

I think that most counties have to have the Jeffrey Lynskey approach. They have to get that Jeffrey Lynskey approach that your whole aim at underage is to produce players of inter-county standard. Who will they have supervising this in order to ensure that they are going to be of inter-county standard?
Rather than picking your favourites at U-15 and U-16, people who just go along with what you say. I think you have to have a body almost independent of hurling people in those counties, almost independent of the County Board, supervising this. Genuine people who know their stuff and who want to produce the kind of players that are going to be needed for the future. Unless those counties adopt a professional approach like that, like Limerick have in fairness to them, then I think they'll find it very difficult to compete with Kilkenny three or four years down the road.

JH: History will remember Brian Cody as the architect of this Kilkenny period of dominance. But does Ned Quinn deserve a large slice of the credit too when you talk about the importance of those sorts of structures?

GL: During the era when they were at their peak, that four-in-a-row team, I always said that Kilkenny was a three-legged stool. It was Cody, Quinn, and Shefflin. They were the big drivers of that. Now they're able to go without Shefflin!

Quinn has been vital to it. Ned Quinn's contribution to Kilkenny hurling, I think all Kilkenny people realise it, but outside of Kilkenny it's not realised that much. The effect he has had and the reassuring presence. He's always there, he's always watching out, he's always the man in the background saying very, very little. He has an iron will. Everything is for the good of Kilkenny hurling. That's his bottom line. Anything that's done has to be for the good of Kilkenny hurling. To have a man like that, at such a powerful level, invaluable doesn't even begin to describe how important that is. When you see in other counties how much better things could be if they had a Ned Quinn. And maybe if you had more Ned Quinns you'd produce more Brian Codys as well. Because they'd be looking out for who was the best to take it on. And they'd ensure that everything at ground level was being done almost to perfection. And then you give yourself a chance.

That's where other counties have to start. Not just looking at their structures, but looking at the people who are driving those structures and driving the thing. I think that's the secret that everybody should take from what Kilkenny are doing.

The Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The Liam MacCarthy Cup.

JH: In the short-term, 2016 must count as a very big year for a lot of teams, surely? How it goes could affect the balance of power over the next five years. It's a big summer, isn't it?

GL: I think it's a defining year, I do. I think it's a defining year for so many teams. It's a defining year for this generation of Clare players. Everybody would agree with that. If you think of Tipperary, the core of that team, the leaders of that team, come from the 2010 U-21 team and it's a defining year for them. They are regarded as underachievers even though they have produced some fantastic games and given great entertainment to everybody. Their success rate is very, very low. So it is a defining year for them.

It's a defining year for Waterford to see can they develop on the plan they had last year. In other words, can they have a better cutting edge up front to transform themselves into real contenders. It's a defining year for Cork. Are they totally gone? Are they just going to fold again like they did last year?

It's not as bad for Limerick in so far as their generation is younger and they are a bit further behind than anyone else. It's a defining year for Galway having taken their stand. Are they going to come and do something in the Championship this year? Not as bad for Dublin, Ger Cunningham is doing great work there, he has steadied the ship, he has changed the crew around, and he has brought in players who look to me anyway to be more genuine and can be relied on more in big games to give their best than the fellas in the past.

I suppose Wexford, this is the last chance, really. If this team goes now this year with Liam Dunne, how low will Wexford hurling go after that. So you can see for all the main contenders that it is a really defining year. It's a very, very important year. And, as you say, it's going to tell us a lot about what will happen over the next three or four years.

JH: There's a famous saying in soccer- 'football is a simple game; you play for 90 minutes and then the Germans win'. Is hurling a simple game - you play for 70 minutes and then Kilkenny win?

GL: If you look back over hurling over the last 20, 25 years especially, it's often the times when you think hurling is at its most predictable that something happens that changes the whole thing around. A Kilkenny defeat in a quarter-final or semi-final will transform the whole thing, it would change the whole landscape. There is always that hope for the unexpected.

I think, I still have confidence, that this will be a great year. That something will happen this year that will provide the spark that lights up this Championship. And I'm expecting a great Championship.