The progression was natural for Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney last winter.
The duo had shone in their roles of joint managers of the Clare minor teams in 2010 and 2011, claiming successive Munster crowns and coming close to All-Irealnd glory. When it came to filling those same roles at U21 level for the 2012 season, they were prime candidates.
It was a challenge that O’Connor admits they relished yet it took time to grow accustomed to it.
“We’ve found it a completely different format to minor,” he said. ”There is no backdoor and it’s a far more cut-throat environment. So you have to get your preparations right for championship. But that was difficult at U21 level because you have a lot more access to players at minor level.
“A lot of our U21 squad were tied up with the senior panel. To be fair to Davy (Fitzgerald) and his management team they worked with us and at the start of the year we identified four dates for challenge matches where we’d try to get our whole panel together.”
Advice was sought from John Minogue and Cyril Lyons, the duo who had combined to steer Clare to the 2009 All-Ireland U21 hurling title, while O’Connor and Moloney also took the reins of the Clare intermediate side.
“We sat down with John and Cyril as well at the start of the year,” says O’Connor. “We had a good debriefing and tried to derive as much information as we could about how to manage an U21 side. It was a matter of seeing what difficulties could arise and what we needed to watch out for.
“The intermediate thing seemed like a natural thing to do even though it was an extra project for us to take on. As well as that given the amount of players we had with the senior panel, there was not enough left over to have proper U21 sessions without them. By having them with the intermediate side helped our cause and when the senior lads came back to the U21 squad, they all gelled together really well.”
The joint managers are also grateful to the input of selector Jimmy Browne and trainer Paul Kinnerk, the current Limerick senior footballer who won a county title with Monaleen last year.
“As a management team we have worked very well together,” outlines O’Connor. “Myself and Donal as joint managers and then Jimmy Browne has done great work as well as a selector. Paul Kinnerk is super as a trainer as well. We’d much rather have had him with us all year. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul for coming on board with us at minor level. I’ve never seen a more innovative trainer, he constantly keeps things fresh.”
To date their 2012 campaign has unfolded splendidly. They claimed the Bord Gáis Energy Munster U21HC title in July in dramatic fashion against Tipperary. A last-gasp Niall Arthur goal secured victory after a game where Clare had struggled to find form but O’Connor provides some context to that performance.
“I felt the odds being quoted before the Munster final were absolutely ridiculous. When you think of it historically, for Tipperary to be 3/1 outsiders playing Clare in an U21 hurling final was unbelievable. There was huge pressure placed on our players from the media, the bookies and the Clare public. So we had to try to live with that.
“The strange thing was that we actually played brilliantly in the first-half of the game but just could not put scores on the board. We were so dominant that it was hard to know what to change. The tension around the place that night and coming down off the stands was unbelievable. It was something I had not experienced before.
“When you look at these players, their big games at minor level have usually been in Thurles or Croke Park. A lot of those times they have been underdogs as well. So playing as favorites and dealing with expectations was something new for them. Next Saturday is a new challenge. It’s no surprise facing Kilkenny given the quality of players at their disposal. We’ve our work cut out.”