Martin Flanagan has seen the best of them come and go. Footballers, hurlers, camogie players have had their moments in the sun, rain and hail at Cusack Park and moved on.
Caretaker Martin Flanagan has, however, been a constant figure at The Park for the past 22 years. He’s seen a hell of a lot of action - great games, tense games, awful games at club and county level - and it’s been his responsibility to have the pitch in top notch condition before and after.
A few weeks ago, Martin retired from his post at Clare GAA headquarters having started initially on a FÁS scheme. His time there coincided with some great success stories for both the county’s hurlers and footballers.
It was the era when Clare hurling manager Ger Loughnane infuriated the media by regularly naming dummy teams ahead of big games. It was also a time when Martin had to map out Cusack Park to replicate measurements at venues such as Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Croke Park, depending on where Clare was playing.
“It is important to have an interest in this type of work because if you haven’t you are only wasting your time. Soon after joining the workforce, I started to open the gates in the morning and it developed from there to looking after the matches at the weekend and then to being present for the training sessions for the different teams,” he recalled.
Having the venue open for inter-county training meant “being in there most of an hour before training started as players would be coming in for rubs and trainers would be putting out cones for training,” explained Martin.
“I was there in ’92, the year the footballers won the Munster title but most of the training was done in Ballyline. I will never forget the colour at the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin that year. The atmosphere was fantastic,” he said
“The junior hurlers won the All-Ireland in ’93 and then the senior hurlers won in ’95 having suffered Munster final defeats in ’93 and ’94. That was an exceptional year (1995) and I believe that their name was on the cup, the way things turned out with Seanie’s (McMahon) injury and the way he remained on the field. Training was tough. The matches in training had a law of their own. They were as good as any Munster championship match and that’s what brought out the best in the boys,” said Martin.
“Training was tough but they were prepared to do it,” added the man who has always followed the fortunes of his native Ruan and Clare.
“That win in ’95 was a great bonus for those who were following matches all their lives and coming home after the team had been beaten by 10 and 12 points and thinking that it wasn’t too bad,” he added.
Seeing the teams prepare close up, Martin was clearly impressed by the training supervised by such greats as John Maughan and Ger Loughnane.
“Shortly after starting, I saw Clare footballers train with six and eight present on the week of a championship game. That changed when John Maughan arrived. They trained quite hard under him
As for Ger Loughnane, he took everything into account,” recalled Martin referring to the fact that Loughnane used to have the pitch narrowed for training ahead of particular games.
“Croke Park at that time was much narrower than Cusack Park so he had the lines brought in for training. He would have the pitch narrowed to the size of the pitch that Clare’s next game was in. If they were going to Thurles, he could play the full width here,” Martin remembered.
“The secret for big match days was to be there early because if anything was wrong, you had time to do something about it. For county finals it was very important to get in there early in the morning and ensure that everything was in order. There was more involved than just lining the pitch. County final days were days that you would need to be on the alert. There would be two matches and dressing rooms would have to be organised so that teams wouldn’t be encroaching on each other”
Over the years, some clubs would “form a bond with a particular dressing room or with a certain side. They might say we were here back in ’95 and we want to go to that side again. Some teams wouldn’t mind which side they would be allocated.”
For big match days when there would be television coverage, it would entail being present early in the morning to let the crews in. “Sometimes, they would arrive on the previous evening, depending on the game,” he said.
“Primary school final days were very enjoyable and very noisy. There were plenty smiles and plenty tears, a huge occasion for all involved.”
Over the years, Martin was also responsible for the preparation of the county board pitches at both Ballyline and Clareabbey. “There was a lot of training in Ballyline in the winter time in the mid-’90s. Clareabbey came on the scene after that. There were always a number of people working through the different schemes and without that it would not have been possible to cut and line the pitches.”
A big part of the work was in the repair of the pitches after training and games.
“While training went on there were a lot of divots and damage to the goal areas and that was a job for next morning. We had to spend a lot of time on the pitch to keep it in shape”.
Martin said the mid-’90s with the senior hurlers was an exceptional time.
“We never thought we would see the day coming. 1997 was a great year with the minors also winning the All-Ireland. It was great to be there with them at training. Of course there would be a certain amount of slagging. The fact that the gates were closed for much of the training meant that a lot of lads would want to know what was going on. I would simply tell them that all will be disclosed on Sunday.”
“The dummy teams upset a lot of people in the media. There would be a lot of people asking what was the team going to be. Once the dummy teams became common place, it made it more interesting to be watching training and trying to figure out what the team would be. It was interesting to see what team was announced, knowing that the team that would be playing would be different,” he said.
With regard to the proposed move from Cusack Park to a new site on the Quin road some years ago, he said “that was a matter for the officials”.
In his time as caretaker there was scarcely a week that he didn’t have to deal with queries from patrons who would have left “umbrellas or reading glasses” after them. “People would be back early next morning looking for their glasses, in particular,” he said.
Martin worked with many of the game’s leading officials at county board level including Brendan Vaughan, Robert Frost, Fr McNamara, Michael McDonagh, Michael O’Neill, Simon Moroney, Pat Fitzgerald and his Ruan clubmate, Des Crowe, who was the board secretary when Martin started working for Clare GAA.
Martin also enjoyed travelling in the team bus on many occasions. “I had a job to get the gear into the dressing rooms before the games. I would keep out of the way after that until I was required again,” he said.
With games at Cusack Park most weekends, Martin rarely had a Sunday off.
“I missed out on being able to go to other games that I would have liked to see and it was difficult family-wise but I always got great support from my family without which it would not have been possible to fill the role”.
He admits he will miss the job. “I won’t miss getting up early in the morning but when the evenings get longer I will probably miss being involved,” he said.
Clare GAA now has the task of appointing Martin’s successor.
With the board’s increasing pitch portfolio, now that Caherlohan, near Tulla, is coming on stream, the person will more or less have to be a consultant agronomist to ensure the playing surfaces are well manicured and maintained. Whoever gets the job will have a tough act to follow.