Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ger Loughnane and the Dream of Liberty

Close vote or no, the only real surprise about Ger Loughnane getting the maroon bullet from the Galway Hurling Board last night was that it took the Galway Board so long to pull the trigger. Loughnane made himself a hostage to fortune with his eagerness to express himself as a pundit between his leaving of Clare and his arrival at Galway, and all those wisecracks came home to roost when Galway were destroyed by Cork in the summer.

Where to now for Loughnane? Back to Feakle, and his dogs and the school, and maybe a time to reflect? An Spailpín enjoyed Loughnane’s punditry immensely, but when he saw the damage it was doing to members of his old Clare team who soldiered on and especially to Anthony Daly, who took over the manager’s job eventually, Loughnane should have buttoned it. It is to be hoped that, chastened by his time in Galway, Loughnane will find time to pick up the phone to Daly, and to Ollie Baker and to others, and arrange to meet up to discuss old times and repair a few bridges. Life is short.

Loughnane is defeated now, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever manage another inter-county side again. His detractors will assemble to say that he was never that good anyway, and sneer at his record in Galway. No matter; Napoleon didn’t do much when he came back from Elba either. But, just as le petit general in his first incarnation cut his way through the belly of old Europe and on into Russia herself, so Loughnane blazed a trail for the downtrodden and despised in Gaelic Games. He told his Clare team that if they believed they could hurl with anyone; they did, and won two All-Irelands on the strength of it.

Three images from the nineties. 1995, the Munster Final, and Seánie McMahon playing out the seventy minutes one-handed at corner-forward, because he had dislocated his shoulder. 1997, Anthony Daly after winning the Munster final, the veins in his neck almost bursting in fury, screaming that “we’re not the whipping boys of Munster any more!” And most forgotten about of all, Loughnane’s sporting reaction to what must have been a heart-scalding blow, Ciarán Carey’s point of the century that knocked Clare out of the Munster and All-Ireland Championship in 1996.

Just as Napoleon should never have struck for Russia, Loughnane spoiled his legacy a little in 1998. As Jamesie O’Connor remarks in Denis Walsh’s marvellous Hurling: The Revolution Years, the way you manage a team that’s won two All-Irelands in three years is not necessarily the way you manage a team that hadn’t won Munster since Tull Considine wore the saffron and blue. But there is no changing in Loughnane – he’s too elemental for that. The sort of demons he was able to conjure for Clare wouldn’t cross the border with him, and Galway have signed on to the list of counties who have very little time for Ger Loughnane.

But it won’t always be thus. As times goes on people will look back on those revolutionary years and see just what it was Loughnane did – with the help of that extraordinary bunch of players with whom he was blessed at that time in Clare. Anthony Daly has said since that he’s embarrassed by the “whipping boys” speech, but he shouldn’t be; whipping boys is exactly what Clare were, and the fury that Daly channelled that day in 1997 was exactly that of a man who has broken free of the lash and the pint of salt at last.

The country is full of whipping boys yet. The changes made to the Championships, ostensibly for the benefit of “weaker” counties, have served only to strengthen the strong – Kerry have yet to lose a quarter-final match since the quarter-finals’ introduction eight years ago – and that means that the lash bites harder than ever now. But the memory of a slightly-mad bald man in Clare, who thought that Tipperary’s Nicolas English was laughing at Clare’s misery and determined to stop him come hell or high water, should give them comfort.

Loughnane is gone now, but his legacy – that there is no natural order; that everyone has a chance of winning an All-Ireland if they want it badly enough – lives on, even though Loughnane himself is no longer the man to deliver liberty. Le roi est mort; vive le roi!

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