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29 Dec

LiveGaelic Legends – Ollie Baker

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Posted by Eamon Donoghue in LiveGaelic Legends | Dec 2013

Clare legend Ollie Baker talks to LiveGaelic’s Eamon Donoghue.

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LiveGaelic Legends – Ollie Baker

Aged eighteen nobody would have foreseen what the future held for young Ollie Baker.

Two time All-Ireland winner, a double All-Star midfielder; A Clare hurling legend whose career has epitomised the underdog tag right up until today.

In 1991 Ollie’s beloved St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield lined out in the minor championship final.

“It was just a distant dream at the time. In 91′ we won the minor ‘A’ championship. Jamesie O’Connor would have been the hero of that team and my position was the sub goalie.”

“And to anyone, a minor sub goalie means that they ain’t going to give you a position anywhere else, so they give you a jersey.”

“But that’s where I saw my position on that team, and I suppose that was just my level at the time.”

Ollie was determined to achieve greatness nonetheless. And his time in the esteemed St. Flannan’s College would help lay the foundations for what was to come.

“What happened a couple of months later after that, through hurling in the club and through hurling in the school in St. Flannan’s college I made a Harty panel as it would’ve been known then. And that brought me on a ton after that and I grew in confidence. I was never again played on the subs bench after that.”

Two years later Baker and St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield were back in a county final as the successful minor team were now at u21 level.

“When we won the 21s in ’93 and ’94 it was the team that had won the minor but it was a much different team. A lot of lads had matured and developed into much better hurlers and that team provided the nucleus of our club team for the best part of the nineties, and the early bits of the century too.”

The Intercounty Journey

After two club championship final losses at senior level, Baker won his first title in 1998. That year they would go on to win both the Munster and All Ireland title. In all Baker won three county Clare championships and two Munster titles.

“As a young lad you don’t think too much. For sure you want to play for the county – you support the county, you go the matches and you’d be there shouting for them; but you don’t really see yourself as being part of something, you just concentrate on your day to day hurling with the club.”

“It’s all a testing ground and when you’re playing others at a higher level and whether or not you can cope, I suppose it’s just getting confidence as you’re getting up and realising that you’re just beginning to develop.

“It was a big turnaround from being a sub goalie in ’91 to lining out for the Clare senior team in ’95. It was a huge progression in a short space of time. It just came about and was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, on several occasions.”

Ollie made his Clare senior hurling debut as a late substitute in a league tie against Galway in 1994.

“Mike Mc, who was involved as a selector on the senior team, was the u21 manager at the time and he was the manager of the Clare junior team in ’94 – and we were beaten in the Munster final in 94 – and he invited me over then after the club championship that year.”

“There was a big focus at the time to bring in a lot of young lads. We had a competitive enough team at u21 at that time and a lot of those lads would have been brought in.”

“So my career would have coincided with Mike’s career and my promotion into the senior team, he was my link in. And I suppose you took it for granted and you took it in your stride because you had played 21 and junior level and the next step up was senior level.”

“But you had to work hard to stay there such was the competitiveness and the quality of lads who were playing hurling at that time. So I knew what Mike wanted so once I knew that I was able to deliver. And on that front then I knew I was going to have a fair shot. Mike was a man that if you worked hard for he’d always have a good word for you.”

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In a magical summer for the banner that same season, the team went on to win their first senior All Ireland in 81 years. Beating Offaly 1-13 to 2-8.

All Ireland Glory

“Oh we certainly got caught up in the whole euphoria that was in the county at the time and we had a huge support base, and to Ger’s credit he was able to keep us focused on what we had to do so that wave would keep flowing . We had a job to do as well but we celebrated as much as anyone and we really had a great summer back in ’95.

“There was a huge connection between the team and the supporters and they certainly felt our heartbeat and we felt theirs. You didn’t want to go out and disappoint the supporters and they were certainly doing their bit in the stands as well. They were a 16th man and it was just something that kept going and going and going and we didn’t want to let them down really, we had a great summer and we just didn’t want the good times to end. ”

At 21 years of age that year Ollie was “Certainly playing without fear, but at the same time you were able to rely on the hard work done, and that you had your body trialled out on the training field and you know you’re able to put yourself through the punishment of match day.”

“But when you’re young, and the team was so young, more importantly there was no fear of losing but maybe there was no fear of winning and that’s something that maybe isn’t mentioned enough. Teams previously for years hadn’t progressed and there was a lot of criticism of teams that wouldn’t just bite the bullet, and the difference with our team was that we weren’t afraid to win. To go out and make mistakes and take the punishment and see what was going to come out the other end of it, and we just kept going and going and going until the very finish, we weren’t afraid to make mistakes and try things out on the field and I think that really stood to us in ’95.”

“And once we go the monkey got of our back in ’95 I think our confidence in ourselves certainly grew and as a team we just bonded together and grew as a team over the next four or five years.”

Club versus County

A trophy cabinet replete with club and county silverware; Baker could never compare the two types of success.

“Well it’s totally different the county success is huge it’s on a national stage it’s just so big. Where the club is just so local. Winning a club isn’t just about the lads on the field it’s the voluntary work. It’s the lads going out taking ash plants out, making hurleys so you’d be saving the club a few pound, or levelling fields. They’re all so involved in the club success, it’s everyone and anyone.”

“The county is so big, the supporters come to the matches, but then outside of the matches they’re switched off. Where the players and managers are switched on. Where in the club everyone is switched on all the time. And fortunately we had huge success with the club which was great because you could see all the work that was being done off the field, as much as on the field.”

“The vision they would have seen fifteen years before in the way they were coaching young lads and the effort they were all putting in was all rewarded then. When you’re a club player you recognise that so much because you can see it in people’s eyes and their faces because it means so much and it’s just that bit more special. I think when you look back on your career it’s your club successes which are the ones you cherish most.”

Forays Into Management

Whether it was with Clare or St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, or his own personal development; Ollie Baker took the underdog tag in his stride. After his own playing days he began implementing the development of smaller counties as a manager. Baker has had spells with his native Clare as a selector, again as a selector with Antrim, and as a manager with Offaly from 2011 to 2013. It’s often been written that Baker was also involved with the Westmeath set-up.

“I was never actually involved in Westmeath that’s often quoted but I was never actually involved in Westmeath.”

“My belief always was that there was never any reason why I couldn’t be successful or why in management teams can’t be successful. So while I respect teams we play against I would never enter into that whole thing. I think I’m going to win every match I play and that’s a view I’ve always held. I think if players prepare properly and train properly and if you have that core belief you’re going to be very hard beaten.”

“I suppose things like that particularly with different teams over the times you’d be trying to instil those beliefs into the players and that’s a very hard thing to do.”

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Central to Baker’s career has been hard work. A quality he places at the centre of every success he has had.

“Well that’s the key. The key is practice, practice, practice. You have to develop your skills. You can be a very talented underage hurler in your own club, and how many of them actually make it as senior hurlers, and maybe it’s because it came so naturally to them as young hurlers.”

“But it’s the hard work you do off the field that’s the key. And if you have that mindset and that way of thinking that will stay with you throughout your career, so whether it’s sports or whatever your chosen field is going to be. A lot of people in GAA who are successful on the field are successful off it, because you need the same attributes throughout your life; hard work, motivation, determination and commitment are the qualities which will endure.”

“Your hard work should be improving your skill level your touch and your competitiveness and they will stay with you throughout your career.”

Today, Baker manages Dublin Senior Club side Kilmacud Crokes. A club steeped in football traditions, who now boast one of the province’s most exciting young hurling teams. With Baker at the helm the future has no boundaries for the South Dublin side.

“Often it’s something you naturally have and it’s very hard to try and contrive that kind of self belief and self confidence. But it’s something I’ve seen as a challenge and something that as I’ve progressed as a manager I really became attuned to, and that is man management.”

“Trying to get the most out of lads, and that’s a hard job but that’s really the challenge that’s out there, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Some you get right and some you don’t get right and that really is the addictive part of the job.”

“You just really love interacting with people and interacting with athletes and pushing them to see how far they can go. Pushing their limits out, pushing their boundaries out.”

The Modern Game

Almost twenty years on there is no doubt the dynamic Clare legend would certainly have a place in any era. But where?

“I don’t know. Maybe centre-field is the role where you can be a half-back and a half forward. They tend to pick it now so that one is an attacking midfielder and one is in the centre back position, and the centre back drops back a bit into the pocket.”

“A covering role back over the half back line is probably where, if I was to tog out in this modern era where I’d be playing.”

“I definitely think hurling hasn’t changed a whole pile only that the players playing it are playing at a much faster pace. There is a greater emphasis on ball retention and on fitness and tackling and all that stuff plays a huge part on the game, that maybe wasn’t as big back then.”

“But I think looking at the hurling product we have now, certainly the game of hurling is far more attractive than it was back then in the 90’s when we were playing. Even though it was still a very attractive and entertaining game back then. Just I think that the current standard of play, it’s a really, really, really attractive game now to watch for a neutral. I think that’s a credit now for the individual counties, but also for back in the clubs. The work that’s gone on in the coaching and development over the last ten or fifteen years.”

This year’s All Ireland triumph for Clare has held a lot of similarities to that of ’95. And who better to summarise then the master underdog himself. Ollie Baker;

“It’s totally different. I don’t think it’d be fair to offer a comparison. I think refereeing has changed hugely in that back in the 90s the game was way more physical, and there wasn’t as much emphasis on possession. Referees had the games played on those terms, where now there are far higher skill levels and fitness levels have increased hugely.”

“A lot of these teams are playing a possession game and a very methodical game trying to revert in scores, so tactics are a huge issue in games where they weren’t as relevant back then. So you can only be judged in the year you were playing in and the year we played in the 90’s we were competitive.”

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