The lows of a 17-point defeat to Galway, a first-ever U21 All-Ireland with Clare and 2013 ‘euphoria’

CLARE HURLER CIAN Dillon thought he was ready for a 10th year on the road with the Banner.

Clare’s Cian Dillon [left] alongside Conor Ryan and Patrick O’Connor after winning the 2013 All-Ireland final.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The Crusheen defender was present and correct when the squad reconvened for their first session of the new season in November ahead of their trip to Boston for the Fenway Classic.

But an injury at that session ruled him out of the state-side clash with Cork, which gave him time to think things over. Doubts started to creep in about his commitment to another season.

He questioned his inter-county future a bit further when he saw the heavy training load that was coming up in December, and informed management of his decision to retire earlier this month after returning home from his honeymoon in South Africa.

The hunger just wasn’t there anymore.

“I had the lads up at the house yesterday,” Dillon tells The42 as he adjusts to life outside the inter-county circle. 

“They were slagging me that I’ll probably let myself go eating all around me. It’s one of my first evenings off where I don’t have to be anywhere.

“It just dawned on me but it’s great, I’m happy out.”

Dillon finishes his Clare career with more than most in his cabinet. All-Ireland medals at U21 and senior level, along with a Division 1 National League title is a tidy collection of silverware to carry off into the sunset.

Dillon had never played inter-county hurling prior to winning that All-Ireland U21 title with Clare in 2009, but he made an impressive transition.

Even the broken foot he sustained shortly before their Munster semi-final didn’t halt his progression.

He was sprung from the bench in Clare’s All-Ireland semi-final victory over Galway and was handed a starting berth for the final.

Dillon tackling Kilkenny’s James Nolan in the 2009 U21 All-Ireland final.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

They came up against a strong Kilkenny outfit that day which included the likes of Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly, but they managed to squeeze through with a one-point win.

“They had plenty of senior talent and a lot of them were after winning a senior All-Ireland the previous week.

I remember one of the lads commiserating with Richie Hogan and saying that at least they had senior but he was adamant that they wanted this.

“It was our first day up there and it was our first All-Ireland for the county at that level.

There was renewed optimism around the county that there was going to be success at senior down the line. We know from other counties that that doesn’t happen. We were glad to at least achieve that.”

Clare delivered on that promise four years later by collecting the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the first time since 1997.

But Dillon and the other members of that successful U21 team had to endure a steep learning curve when they joined the senior fold.

Dillon in action against Waterford in 2010.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

“We were in Division 2 so we were travelling to Carlow, Antrim, Down,” says Dillon as he reflects on those barren years.

“They were the games I ended up playing with Clare first. 

“A lot of us came in from the U21′s and all we knew was winning but obviously the expectation was so different at the time.

It was kind of a lose-lose situation from a personal point of view. You’re starting off with your first game in senior hurling and you’re playing teams that you’re expected to beat.

“If you played well, no-one really knew if you were going to be up for it come championship and if you didn’t play well, you were almost a shoo-in not to be playing well come championship.”

Dillon would have to wait until 2012 for his first senior championship win with Clare and there was a particularly dark day for the county during the 2011 All-Ireland qualifiers.

The Banner suffered a 17-point defeat to neighbours Galway which included an impressive haul of 1-9 for Joe Canning.

Joe Canning celebrating a goal against Clare in 2011.

Source: James Crombie

Dillon presumed he would picking up the Portumna star that day before a late positional switch pushed him out of full-back and into one of the corners.

“It wasn’t my lad doing the damage but it was still a bad day,” says Dillon.

“That was a low, low point for sure. The previous game, we lost to Tipperary by eight or nine points but they were All-Ireland champions and we were doing well.

“We fizzled out and we knew we needed to search for a big improvement. Davy Fitz came in as manager in 2012 and started to input a style of play that was going to suit us. We recognised that we’d a younger team at that point and he brought in even younger players from then.

“We started utilising a running game that suited us. I suppose everything kind of improved after that in fairness and built up to that wonderful season in 2013.”

That fairytale 2013 championship for Clare consisted of victories over Laois and Wexford in the qualifiers before they accounted for Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

A semi-final victory against Munster champions Limerick followed on from that to set-up an All-Ireland decider against a Cork side who had dumped Clare out of the provincial championship.

“I know it’s kind of cliched but genuinely, the occasion didn’t get to us,” Dillon remembers.

“A lot of us had the experience of playing there in 2009 so that stood to us as well. Generally, we just got on with it and it was well managed by the lads.

“Because we had the wins under our belt, we were able to focus on hurling and make sure we were gonna have the best chance of putting in our best performance.”

Unsurprisingly, that Domhnall O’Donovan equaliser which ensured the All-Ireland final would go to a replay, is Dillon’s first thought when he reminisces on that magical time for Clare.

Domhnall O’Donovan nailing the equaliser that sent the 2013 All-Ireland final to a replay.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He’d be the very lad you’d be shouting at not to go for points at training, you’d be telling to go back.

I remember in the qualifier against Laois that year, all the backs had scored and he was the only one that didn’t and we were slagging him.

“And then he got the most important one of the year then. He fairly made us eat our words.

“It was mad, I remember seeing everyone running over to him. I literally just put my hands on the hips and looked up at the stand.

“Then the sense of absolute relief at the end. All of a sudden when we got back in the dressing room and regrouped we just put our focus into the following game and how lucky we were to be given the chance to go again.”

Clare edged out the second act of that All-Ireland final after another thriller against Cork, with a 19-year-old Shane O’Donnell starring for Davy Fitzgerald’s side.

Dillon and his teammates were able to savour the final few seconds after a late Darach Honan goal put them six points clear before their dreams became reality at the final whistle.

It was brilliant to see out the last minute or two in the knowledge that we had it. There’s no greater feeling than when you know there’s a minute or two to play but you know that we had it in our grasp.

“It was euphoria really when the whistle went.

“It went by so quick. The first few days were unbelievable, the homecoming and all the elements that go with it. The crowds that were at the reception, I’d never seen anything like it.

Dillon holding the Liam MacCarthy Cup at the homecoming in Clare.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That was all very surreal to all of us. We couldn’t believe we had done it.

“After that it was fairly quiet, I think we had club the following week. You can’t really afford the time too much to celebrate it. All of sudden you’re focused on the following year and you’re hoping to put up a title defence.

“If there’s one nearly regret, it’s that I didn’t really enjoy it enough. But it was definitely unreal memories.”

The subsequent years were difficult for Clare and it would be 2016 before they picked up another major trophy when they clinched the Allianz league title.

Dillon was joint captain of the team that year along with Tony Kelly when they defeated Waterford after a replay in the Division 1 final.

It looked like Clare’s fortunes were about to improve but they failed to really capitalise on that momentum when the championship rolled around later that year.

Dillon’s place among the regular starters came under threat the following season. After playing the full league campaign, he found himself slipping in and out of the team during the championship.

He missed the start of the 2018 season when he took a career break to go travelling and struggled to get much game time after that.

Pure euphoria for Dillon in 2013.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Primary School teacher is certain he would have given it another shot this year if he still had the hunger to hurl for Clare, but that flame isn’t roaring inside anymore.

He’ll give his last years to Crusheen and he can step away from Clare with plenty of happy memories to reflect on.

“I think I had seven or eight consecutive years where I think I played every championship game and was only taken off in one when we were winning by a large margin.

“I had a good lot of years where I was a mainstay on the team and I can be happy with that.

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“I can be happy too that I’m relatively injury-free. I only have the one bad hip,” he laughs. After putting in 10 years of training, it can have its effect but I’ll hopefully have a good couple of years where I can perform for the club.

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