Posted by Christy O'Connor
Wednesday 20 July 2016
From our GAA Experts to football fans all over Ireland, this week's Win, Lose or Draw predictions are starting to take shape.
In June 2011, Down came to Cusack Park Ennis for a qualifier. Down had been in the previous year’s All-Ireland final, which they lost to Cork by one point. Clare had been hammered by Cork in Munster. Down were expected to roll Clare over but with time up, one of the biggest shocks in qualifier history was on the cards.
Clare hit four successive scores to level the match. They had all the momentum. Paul McComiskey finally put Down ahead but that was only part of the drama. Deep in injury time, Down corner forward Conor Laverty took the ball off his own goal-line as it was headed for the net.
The Clare players gathered in a huddle in the middle of the field afterwards. Gary Brennan, the team-captain, who had been immense, addressed the group. ‘Don’t anyone here be happy with a good performance and a narrow defeat,’ he told them. ‘None of that stuff means anything.’
Brennan had no interest in moral victories. Clare were often capable of one big performance over the summer but they could never sustain any level of consistency. Brennan was fed up with that yo-yo culture. He was desperate to try and change that mindset.
Clare did reach the Munster final the following year in 2012 but it was on the back of a one-point win against Limerick in the semi-final. Cork beat them in that final by 12 points. Clare’s only other match was a 19-point hiding to Kerry in the qualifiers. After another beating from Cork in the 2013 Munster championship, Clare’s season ended with a 16-point trimming from Laois in the qualifiers. They were going nowhere. Fast.
Clare had been crippled by their failure to get out of Division 4 (or the old Division 2B) where they had been mired for over a decade. They had gone close on two occasions, in 2010 and 2012, when final day defeats had ended their prospects. In 2012, a late goal chance which would have given Clare victory – and promotion – was stopped from crossing the line by the fingertips of a Wicklow player with almost the last play. Similar to the Down match the previous year, Clare were close but still a world away.
When Colm Collins was appointed Clare manager in 2014, he knew the players were capable of promotion. He set new goals. He didn’t want their raison d’etre to be just about getting out of Division 4; Collins set a target of becoming a top-16 team again, like Clare were in the 1990s, by aiming for Division 2 football.
The slow rise up the gradient began that season when Clare were finally promoted. After running Kerry to four points in the Munster semi-final, they lost to Kildare in Round 3 of the qualifier by one point. They looked like a team on the move until 2015 arrived and hit them in the face like a sledgehammer. They just about survived in Division 3 before an injury-crisis torpedoed their summer, losing to Cork and Longford. Momentum was stalling again but ambition certainly wasn’t.
Collins went looking for a new edge. When Paudie Kissane stepped down as coach, Collins approached Mick Bohan, who had been ‘skills coach’ with Dublin under Jim Gavin in 2013 and 2014. Bohan, whose father hailed from Clare departed after that last season in 2014 when his father passed away and, three months later, his best friend and former teaching colleague Hughie Kivlehan, a Sligo native and former hurler with the county living in Ennis.
Both deaths had a profound impact on Bohan. With such connections to Clare, it persuaded him to accept Collins' offer. "My intention would have been to return to Dublin,” said Bohan recently. “But something in me said, 'I actually need to mark these two men's influence on my life.'"
Bohan’s influence on Clare has been massive ever since. He has revolutionized how they train, and play. The players are expected to be able to execute all skills with both hands and both feet. Progress became more pronounced. In April, Clare secured promotion to Division 2 to become a top-16 team again. They won the Division 3 league final when defeating Kildare in Croke Park.
Hitting 2-17 in that match provided further evidence of how much Clare’s scoring rate has increased. They also hit 2-17 last weekend against Sligo. Although they lost to Kerry in a Munster semi-final that was uncompetitive for long stages, Clare still kicked 0-17 in Killarney.
Their scoring average in three games last summer was just 1-11 but Clare’s players are becoming more rounded footballers. Cathal O’Connor, an excellent midfielder, who was never a noted scorer, hit four points from play against Sligo. O’Connor and Brennan form an excellent midfield partnership but this group has a hardened core of players who were shaped by consistent hardship. Five of them – Brennan, David Tubridy, Gordon Kelly, Joe Hayes and Martin McMahon spent eight or more years of their careers plying their trade in Division 4. The new raft of talent which came into the squad in the last 12 months has also enhanced the quality of the team. Keelan Sexton, Cian O’Dea and Pearse Lillis – all 19-year olds – have been brilliant this season.
Their development has also strengthened the bench and their scoring options. In Clare’s four championship games this summer, their bench has contributed 0-11 from play. During the 2015 league, Clare used a total of 28 substitutions (22 of of which were attacking players) and they mined just one score – a Shane Brennan goal against Tipperary.
Their rate of improvement is even more impressive given Clare’s consistent dearth of underage success. Their last Munster minor final appearance was in 1994. They haven’t appeared in a Munster U-21 final since 2002. Cork annihilated Clare in this year’s U-21 championship by 15 points and yet Clare have four U-21s on their senior team.
Ambition continues to fly in the face of convention. Collins is originally from Kilmihil, in the heart of football country, but his two sons – Podge and Sean – play for Cratloe, a football outpost in a hurling heartland which won successive county senior football titles in 2013 and 2014. Their Clare team-mate, Kevin Hartnett, hails from just down the road Meelick, another club in the hurling heartland on the edge of Limerick city.
Clare have kept finding a way. Now, they just need to try and take that next glorious step by reaching a first All-Ireland quarter-final.
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That's the way the mood is going for this weekend's games - now it's time to make your predictions for the chance to win two All-Ireland Final tickets.
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