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In this extract from the best-selling Clare: Game of my Life’, in which 30 of the county’s greatest hurlers remember the one game that defined their careers, Ollie Baker revisits a Sunday in the spring of 1995 when he had to race the team bus to get his first start for the county

Ollie Baker

 CLARE 1-17 LAOIS 0-5

NHL Round Five O’Moore Park, Portlaoise

FEBRUARY 26, 1995

I HOPPED OUT onto the motorway, beside Bunratty Castle, with the hurleys and gear bag in my hand and stuck out my thumb.

It was a Sunday morning in February of 1995 and I was on my way to Portlaoise, where I was due to start my first league game for Clare.

This game sticks in my memory because my grandmother (Maureen Baker) passed away on the Thursday beforehand. She’d had dementia, so it wasn’t a huge shock but of course it was sad for the family.

The team had been named at training on the Thursday night and I was picked to start. I had come on in two games against Galway and Limerick, before Christmas. It was my first year on the panel and this was my first opportunity to get a starting jersey.

These were the days before mobile phones. You generally found out you were named in the starting 15 when it came out in The Clare Champion on Thursday.

I had an aunt who was coming over from England, so the funeral Mass was on Sunday morning and we were playing the same day. Ger (Loughnane) and Mike (McNamara) came to the removal and shook hands with everyone. They presumed that when I wasn’t there five minutes before the bus was leaving on the Sunday, that I wasn’t going to turn up at all.

At home my father had said, ‘What are you doing hanging around here? Will you go away and play a game of hurling. There’s nothing you can do here anyway. So go on away’.

My timekeeping, generally, is five minutes late. So my uncle Noel dropped me to the West County Hotel.

Bus gone!

I was thinking that they couldn’t be gone too long, so the next stop was down in Clarecastle. The uncle drove me to Clarecastle, but they were gone from there too.

The uncle then tore down the road to Newmarket… GONE! The last stop they had in the county was in Bunratty.

My uncle was saying, ‘I’ve to go back to my mother’s mass!’ He dropped me to Bunratty. Bus gone from there too. There was my starting place gone.

Everything… GONE!

Noel was asking, was I going back with him?

After being told to go to the match by my father, I knew I wasn’t going to be welcome at home either. So that’s why I had my thumb out, beside Bunratty Castle.

I got a lift, after maybe 20 minutes, to Caherdavin. I put out the thumb again and got a lift to the Nenagh road, at the other side of Limerick city. From there, I got a lift to two or three miles short of Birdhill.

It was getting tight enough at that stage. I had to make up my mind as to whether I was going to continue on. There were 20 minute intervals between every lift.

I had a back-up plan in my mind. I thought that if I got as far as Matt the Thresher’s in Birdhill, I’d hang on inside there and listen to the match on the radio and surely someone coming home from the match would give me a lift back to Barefield.

I had all that in my mind and the next thing, a car passed by. They jammed the brakes and reversed back. It was John Casey from Fanore. He was going to the match himself so I said, ‘That’s great’. The car was full but I was bundled into the back of it.

There were a few questions about why I was late, and I was trying to explain myself. I hadn’t known it but the team was stopping at The Racket Hall in Roscrea. I saw the bus as we were passing and I said, ‘I’ll be grand here’. John jammed again and I got out.

The players and management were coming out to the bus.

All I was afraid of was that they would have named a replacement. Loughnane’s face dropped as I came in. It didn’t happen too often but he went quiet for a second or two. He said that he was after telling someone that they were starting, I think it was John Chaplin. Loughnane heard the story of how I got there and he said that he couldn’t leave me off after that.

They knocked a bit of craic out of it on the bus. I was just 20 years of age and I was as green as grass. You need something like that to bond you with a team. I was the idiot that couldn’t make the bus on time.

We went out to play the match and I remember that Sparrow (Ger O’Loughlin) was playing corner-forward. Sparrow always wanted the ball put into Sparrow. He didn’t want it put in between himself and the corner-back. That wasn’t the kind of ball that Sparrow wanted.

He was giving me a bit of guidance going out onto the field and I just felt so comfortable in and around everybody.

We’d had great craic on the bus and I was so relaxed after the panic of getting there.

As it turned out, I scored four points from midfield and a sideline cut. The next time I scored a point from a lineball was in the All-Ireland final. I had a really good game and, in my own mind, I felt completely at home at that level.

The easiest thing to do would have been to stay in the car with my uncle that day and to say that the bus was gone. I don’t know would I do it nowadays or would I encourage it. I’d probably have to do 30 laps for missing the bus and I’d have to apologise to the whole panel for letting them down. I’m not sure would it be acceptable these days, but that’s the way it was.

Scoring five points gave me a huge boost in confidence. When you’re coming in as a young lad, you need some kind of bond with the team to help you feel like you belong there. That takes away all of the doubt that you have about yourself… Am I good enough to be here? If you don’t have the confidence of the group around you, there’s going to be a huge amount of doubt in your own head.

Eight months later, we were walking down the steps of the Hogan Stand with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in our hands. Completely unbelievable and you couldn’t plan for it.

In hindsight, you could read a lot into Loughnane starting me against Laois, but I’d say they just said, ‘We have to play him after the trouble he went to’.

They were only laughing at the good of it.

That day certainly stuck with me forever, though. When I think of it, I think of nana’s anniversary and that maybe she was Upstairs looking down, giving me a little bit of comfort and a bit of guidance.

There was nothing made of it at home. I was telling them that I had to get three or four lifts after Noel had dropped me off. The auld lad’s answer was, ‘Sure, how else were you going to get there?’ That’s not to bemoan the current generation, although you’d never see a lad out thumbing now. Maybe that is linked to why there is a lack of freedom, for some players, to express themselves on the field. Everything is planned.

There is a huge difference between preparation now compared to back then.

I’d love to say that I was never late again for a game but I can’t say that. Still, if we were meeting at 10am tomorrow, I’d be there at five past. There’s a more relaxed attitude towards time the further west you go in this country, which I’m okay with.

If management had sat us down in 1995 and said our goal that year was to win the Munster Championship and the All-Ireland, we’d have frozen with the enormity of all of that. They guided us through it game by game.

Loughnane and Mike Mac were doing an awful lot of psychological work, unknown to us. Their genius was to prepare us for when they did come with the pressure; they could say that we had been through all of it. Running out to play in a Munster final in Thurles was never anywhere near as hard as the training we did in Ballyline or on the hill in Shannon. All we needed was a bit of a reminder that this was the easy bit.

In ways, looking back on it, there’s a certain element of guilt. I had played a game and a half of championship hurling for Clare and I had a Munster medal in my back pocket. The likes of Cyril Lyons had been toiling for over a decade. You’re feeling guilty, in one sense, that you were so lucky and so privileged but you knew when you were talking to Cyril that you had his respect.

When I think back on the training we did that winter and spring, the group formed a bond around each other. We never lost sight of any of that when we started winning things.

Everything was in line for it to happen and it did happen, whereas the teams of the 70s and back further, they had great teams and great players. But they never got the rewards that we got. You’d be very thankful in that regard.

Even if we hadn’t won the All-Ireland or Munster that year, I was having a ball being involved with the Clare team. That’s all I ever wanted, to be playing with players I really looked up to; the likes of Jim McInerney, Cyril Lyons and Jamesie O’Connor.

The Laois game was a great start for me and I kept the jersey for a couple more games. Frank Lohan, Fergal Hegarty and myself had been brought into the panel.

Seánie McMahon was getting a run at centre-back, Anthony Daly was playing out on the wing and Brian Lohan was gone in full-back. Mike O’Halloran was also new to the set-up, as were Stephen McNamara and Conor Clancy. It was an exciting time for a young lad to be involved.

Everyone would have this perception, under Ger, Mike and Tony, that we were really intense, goal-driven and that nothing was going to get in our way. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best performances we ever gave were when we were relaxed.

We knew what we had to do, and we just went out and did it. There was no roaring or shouting or threats issued against anyone that they had to do this… or else it was going to be curtains.

There was a trust and understanding along the lines of… We know the lads are training hard and the natural consequence of that is that they’re going to play okay. That mutual respect was there.

When I got a call to join the Clare panel in September or October of 1994, Mike Mac rang our house phone. He didn’t talk to me though. He spoke to my mother. All he said was, ‘Tell Ollie that we’re training on Tuesday evening over in Ballyline and if he wants to be part of the panel, he’ll be there’.

That was it. I was standing 10 feet from my mother but he didn’t want to talk to me.

Even when I joined the gardaí, there were no mobile phones. It would have been in the winter of 1997. You got a phone call on a Friday evening to say that you were starting on the Monday. That’s the way the world worked and that was everyone’s house. There was no panic and there was no rushing.

You weren’t getting a phone call asking, ‘Where are you now?’

I had come on as a sub against Galway in the league in 1994 before Christmas. I was put in marking Pat Malone. I went in to challenge him for the first ball I went for. I bounced off him and my legs went from under me. As he was running off, his heel came back up and hit me under the chin and burst me. I never felt as low.

I’ll never forget that moment and the complete embarrassment of being out on the field with a great player like Pat Malone. I felt that I didn’t belong there at all. But it’s how you dust yourself down and how you come out of that moment that tells a lot.

We were level going into injury time and I scored a point to put us ahead. It was the first time in a couple of decades that Clare would have won a game in Galway. I was fierce excited, thinking that I was going to get all of the headlines. There were three minutes of injury time played and Jim McInerney got 2-1.There wasn’t a mention of Ollie Baker again.

I played a junior B hurling league final against Naoise Jordan. Noel Purcell, his godson, was playing in goals for us. Naoise was playing corner-forward for Parteen at the time. It was about 1991. I was 17. Naoise did everything in his power to score a goal. Noel didn’t care if he let in 10 goals, as long as Naoise didn’t get one.

I love being involved in clubs and hearing the stories of the junior B team. I played junior B and junior A hurling before I got a break to play intermediate for St Joseph’s. Jim O’Donnell was on our team. He was a guard in Ennis and was on the Limerick 1973 panel. He hurt his leg before the ’73 All-Ireland final. He would have been a great mentor for me. The ball just seemed to stick to him. He’d be everywhere the ball landed and you’d think he never moved at all.

He’d guide you through a game and tell you that you were taking too much out of the ball or going for a ball that there was no need to go for. Or if you’re not going to get it, to sit back. This was exactly what a 16 or 17-year-old needed to hear… and you were hearing it from a legend.

Players aren’t given the room to develop in club games now. If you don’t make a development squad by the time you’re 15, you can forget about ever playing for the county. Young lads aren’t going to pick up how to play the game.

Junior hurling back then was a great learning ground.

I remember playing Scariff in one of my first years playing junior and a bit of a row started. My hurley was gone from my hand, although I hadn’t dropped it to go fighting. A few lads were jumping in and I turned to face this lad who had a hurley.

He looked at me in amazement as if to say… Where’s your hurley? What kind of an ape are you? He rose his hurley and I got out of there.

Jim O’Donnell told me after to never leave a hurley out of my hand again.

You bring those things with you and you wonder if young lads are getting that guidance nowadays. I don’t think they are.

‘Clare: Game of my Life’ by Peter O’Connell is published by Hero Books and is available in all good book stores (priced €20.00).

For your chance to WIN a copy of Clare: Game of my Life, answer the following question and send your answer along with your details to: The Clare Echo, 36C Abbey Street, Ennis, County Clare, V95 FP44

Where did Ollie catch up with the team bus?

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