Welcome to AIB Club Chronicles, a new series where we delve into the toughest of times and the best of times from classic club matches from the last three decades, as told by the players and coaches themselves.
In our first episode, we revisit what was dubbed one of the greatest games of club hurling ever played – Clarinbridge V De La Salle in the AIB All-Ireland Club Semi Final from 2011. De La Salle’s manager, Michael Ryan and talisman, John Mullane, along with Clarinbridge Manager, Micheál Donoghue and goalkeeper, Liam Donoghue tell the story of a thrilling game that produced 53 scores and a winning goal in injury time of extra time.
That day in Thurles in February 2011. The AIB All-Ireland Club Semi-Final.
It still haunts me.
The only way I can describe is like you just got a big Christmas pay packet and someone robs your wallet.
You are fit to kill someone. You can’t kill someone.
I’m still not over it.
I’ll take that game to my grave.
Before I talk about what happened that day and why the loss hit so hard, you need to know the journey that De La Salle had come on to get to that point.
From the being whipping boys of Waterford club hurling to becoming top dogs and All-Ireland contenders.
My earliest memory of hurling? Four or five years old playing in the yard at school in Stephen Street, Brother Virgilius coaching us in the basics of the game that would become such a huge part of my life.
St. Stephen’s was a De La Salle school, so the natural next step was to head up to the club at Cleaboy where Joey Carton took up the reigns from Brother Virgilus – two men that had a big impact on my hurling career, passing on the passion for GAA, early doors.
Back then, De La Salle were well down the rankings in Waterford club hurling. We lived in the shadows of the likes of Mount Sion and Ballygunner. Being beaten by cricket scores was not unusual. But we were part of a club that had a plan.
Thanks to great clubmen like Sonny Walsh, the De La Salle juvenile system had been established in the 1980s and laid the pathway for kids like me that wanted to play and win at the top level.
In 1983, Sonny Walsh died suddenly at only 38 years of age while training juveniles in his beloved Cleaboy, but it was Sonny’s vision and the clubmen that bought into that vision, that eventually bore fruit. We saw success at numerous age groups at underage level being followed by a minor hurling county championship in 1989.
It was because of that juvenile system that I was able to play senior club hurling when I made the grade in 1998. We were still a relatively small club. We had tasted success in Feile na Gaels with Kevin Moran’s group and there was a sense about the place that greater things were yet to come.
”Our days as the whipping boys were coming to an end.
The club scene back then was highly competitive, and it was helping build a resurgence at county level too. Waterford hurling was on the crest of a wave. Beating Tipp to bring the Munster title home in 2002 – the first time in 39 years.
It was a great source of pride to represent De La Salle on that panel along with Stevie Brenner, Bryan “The Bull” Phelan and Conan Watt. It propelled the four of us to battle for success and stand out in the club championship.
In 2005, the breakthrough almost came.
Our near neighbours and biggest rivals, Mount Sion were going for four county titles in a row. We put paid to that in the semi-final, beating them by a point. Into our first county final. But we found ourselves on the wrong end of it, edged out by Ballygunner. Patience needed.
A rain-soaked November day in 2008 gave me probably the greatest moment in my hurling career. I’ll never forget it. The final whistle, leaving the field as county champions for the first time in De La Salle’s history.
We had the experience of losing three years earlier that helped us past a very strong Abbeyside team. A special day that will live long the memory of everyone associated with the club.
”Things snowballed on from there. The shackles were off.
We won an epic battle with Cork Sarsfields. Confidence growing.
Adare faced us in the Munster Final. By half time we hadn’t registered a score. But there was a belief there and we came out in the second half and took control of the game. The crowd got behind us. We scored 1-09 to their 10 points. Munster Champions. Momentum.
Extra-time winners against Cushendall in the All-Ireland Semi-Final. On our way to Croke Park.
Then, in the All-Ireland final we met the juggernaut that was Portumna. Well beaten on the day, but we knew it in ourselves that we had what it takes to be back competing for an All-Ireland title.
Later came the 2010-11 season and the single greatest disappointment in my career.
We had dominated the county championship that year. We were ready to attack the Munster Championship and we were ready to attack the All-Ireland.
We beat a really classy Thurles Sarsfields team to win Munster and having come through that we felt we were ready to push on and make history by winning the All-Ireland.
Clarinbridge were waiting for us in the All-Ireland semi-final.
We didn’t know an awful lot about Clarinbridge. Most people outside of Galway would have expected Portumna to come through as they had done the previous three years.
We did some video analysis. We probably should have gone to watch their county final win against Loughrea… hindsight…
What we would have seen was a team a lot like ourselves. Never knowing when we were beaten. Hard to put away. A formidable side.
We were going into the relatively unknown, but we were very confident in ourselves that we could get back to another All Ireland final. We had good reason to be confident…
The backbone of any good team is the half back line. We had an inter-county half back line.
One to nine we were solid out – the launch pad for our attack.
We had the right mix of experience and some great young players – the likes of Eoin Madigan, Jake Dillon, Lee Hayes, all potential match winners.
We had a top-class management team led by Michael Ryan.
We had spirit and belief within the club.
We had everything you need to achieve All Ireland success.
It was a sunny day in Thurles… a stadium where we’d tasted success in the past.
Right from the off, the game just ebbed and flowed. Three points down at half time but still very much in it.
We took everything they’d thrown at us. We dug in. We started to take control. With three minutes left in normal time, Eoin Madigan, who’d come off the bench, got the ball way out on the wing. With his back to the end line, he shot over his right shoulder and it sailed over the bar to put us three points clear. A beautiful score.
When I watched that point go over, I firmly believed we were going to push on and win the game.
”I never envisaged what was about to unfold.
Clarinbridge get a 21-yard free. Mark Kerins steps up. He puts it in the top corner of the net. All square.
Then a minute into injury time, his brother, Alan Kerins puts Clarinbridge into the lead. We’re staring at defeat, but we had that grit, we had that determination.
We get a free on the half way line. The Bull Phelan does the job. Level again. We’re going to extra-time.
We picked up where we left off. Clarinbridge goal from a penalty one end. Eoin Madigan rifles a goal for us down the other end. Ebbing and flowing.
We were happy with the way we were playing. Getting in the hooks and blocks. Working our way up the pitch. Taking our scores. In command once again. The clock’s gone into the red. We’re two points ahead and on our way. Then… devastation.
In injury time of extra time and our whole team are back defending. I’ve cleared the ball and I’m just thinking, “Blow the whistle, James McGrath!”.
Ball comes back in again. The Bull Whelan clears it. Hands in the air. “Blow the whistle, ref!!”
Ball is lobbed back in again. It hangs in the air for an age. “Would you ever just blow the whistle?!”
Ball breaks. Alan Kerins gets it. Takes a shot. The ball flicks up. Clarinbridge’s midfielder, Eanna Murphy, pops up and puts the ball in the back of the net. Clarinbridge go a point in front.
Did that actually happen?
Where do you go from here?
”Something’s been snatched from you that should have been yours.
Then follows, weeks of torturing yourself with “What if?”. What if I’d soloed out with the ball instead of pucking it clear? What if someone had just belted the ball out of play? Row Z.
But it was after over 8o minutes of intense championship hurling. Over 50 scores. Your legs are like jelly. You do what you can keep it as far away from our goal as possible and we’ll be in an All-Ireland final. What happened after that… Dreams became a nightmare.
Then, salt in the wound…
Clarinbridge go on and beat O’Loughlin Gaels by 12 points and head up the steps to lift the cup in Croke Park.
That should have been us.
It still lingers in the mind.
I firmly believe that was my best chance of winning an All-Ireland medal… Gone.
Of course, I had a great inter-county career. Many great days with Waterford. Many bad days with Waterford. But that day in Thurles was the lowest point.
Coming to the end of my Waterford career, I felt the weight of expectation was too great. When I started out there was no pressure. I could just enjoy it. Towards the end, there was enormous pressure on me to deliver every game. I put a lot of that pressure on myself. If I don’t deliver, there’s a strong possibility Waterford won’t deliver.
That was draining. I wanted to be released from that.
Yes, I could have gone on for another year or two, but my decision was made.
Last year, I played my last game for De La Salle.
Thankfully, De La Salle are in a much better place than when I started.
The future’s bright and there will be other days like the first county final win in 2008.
Days for winning with school friends. Winning with family. Winning with supporters.
Days when you see the emotion of the people who stood by you through thick and thin. Days for thinking of those who passed away, now looking down on a victory.
De La Salle will have those days again.
If you enjoyed John’s article, you might like to read Henry Shefflin’s “There’s A Bit Of The Psychologist In Cody“.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.