Three decades have passed, and it still gnaws. “To win only once,” muses Emmet Durney, who quotes the Saw Doctors song, would have justified all the hours and sacrifice.
Instead, for all of their titles, Clann na nGael will forever be tagged as the team that lost four consecutive All-Ireland club football finals between 1987 and 1990. “It’s like Mayo now, I guess!” says Durney, a clan hero who played for Roscommon and led his county to a Connacht minor title last St Stephen’s Day.
“Now we have enjoyed it immensely and you can imagine it turned into a pilgrimage, a day in the people’s calendar. ‘Where are you on Paddy’s Day? We’re in Croke Park with Clann na nGael’.
“And it was unique – ah, it was great for a small club to do that. But when all is said and done, someone would have won to justify everything. It’s an itch you can never scratch again.”
As the owner of 12 county medals, Durney certainly doesn’t play the poor mouth, as he remembers a time when every second Clann player was a McManus and most years ran until the following March.
They still remain the benchmark for the county leaders who could never seal the All-Ireland deal. . . but there are others out there.
Ballygunner has won eight Waterford SHC titles during the spin. They’ve fished back further, reaching 25 of the last 30 provincial finals – and winning 17 of them.
But outside the Déise it was a very mixed bag. Munster’s 2001 and 2018 club titles were so lavishly celebrated, largely because of all the heartbreak that preceded them: Ballygunner lost a record nine provincial deciders, including three of the last five.
Their two ventures outside Munster both ended in defeat in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clarinbridge and Ballyhale Shamrocks.
On Sunday they face Ballyea in Ennis. It’s been eight weeks since their provincial final against Roanmore, and even that was a twenty-point cakewalk, so there are probably valid reasons to be concerned about the potential undercooking against the Clare champions.
But historically, winning Munster’s quarter-finals (or even semi-finals) has never been the problem.
Ballygunner had already lost finals in ’96 and ’99 when Andy Moloney switched from his native Cahir in 2001. Upon his arrival, Moloney can still remember winning an All-Ireland, but Munster was the holy grail.
“And when we got it, we took our foot off the pedal because we were only four points behind Clarinbridge in the All-Ireland semi-final, but realistically we haven’t trained well this winter at all. We’ve had it too good!”
Thinking back to the team he had joined, he adds: “There was something nagging at them all the time – they kept getting beaten in the final of Munster. So when they won one, it was like a monkey on the back.
“Now that this current crop has won a Munster final (against their former nemesis, Na Piarsaigh, in 2018), they want to get a taste of that – and a little more.”
He may have come up short during his own playing days, but Moloney (along with Colm Bonnar) managed to get Ballyhale to the Croker top in 2015. Shamrocks is the ultimate example of a club whose DNA is steeped in All-Ireland know-how.
Perhaps this was the only thing Clann na nGael was missing. Their first final, against Portlaoise in 1983, was played in a storm in Cloughjordan. Durney was a sub, just turned 17: they lost by a surreal 0-12 to 2-0.
But after a one-year hiatus, they came back stronger, winning six consecutive Connacht titles.
“I often compare it to Seán Kelly – he was probably the best cyclist in the world without ever winning the Tour de France,” Durney recalls.
“Clann na nGael was arguably the best team in the country at the time, we beat everyone. . . but lost the four finals.
“It was often thought that if we had won the first, we could have won the four. Because by the time the Baltinglass final came along, it was almost a psychological thing.
“If you look at it, our arch-rivals down the road, St Brigid’s, became the first Roscommon club to win an All-Ireland club championship, and that gnaws – of course it does.”