For the fourth year in a row Clare followed their Munster Championship exit to Kerry with victory in their opening qualifier game of the summer, but the challenge for Colm Collins’ side is to to put
championship wins back-to-back for just the third time in his tenure.
This was Clare’s 13th championship win under Collins — he has managed them to one draw and 11 losses in his six seasons too — and the second biggest tally his side has managed in that time. They’ve rarely been as convincing in victory — their 10th overall win through the back door.
Goals from Gary Brennan and Jamie Malone helped Clare to a big 2-12 to 0-6 lead at half-time, and despite a second-half revival from Leitrim, Éimhín Courtney’s third goal sealed the win.
Leitrim’s hurlers had won the Lory Meagher Cup at Croke Park earlier in the day, but the energy was zapped by the time they appeared on the pitch at half-time.
“It was a decent score, a lot of things you would be happy with,” said Collins.
“But championship is all about winning and losing. We have won our game now and we are in the pot.
“Anybody that is playing football would love to be playing in this beautiful pitch, stadium and dry conditions. If you can’t play football here, you can’t play it.”
Clare reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals as recently as 2016 — they won three qualifiers in a row that year — but below-par performances against Waterford and Kerry coming into this game meant their expectations were low.
Still they had too much firepower for Leitrim, and quickly went about quenching any chances of an upset.
Early points from Jamie Malone, Eoin Cleary and Brennan gave Clare a 0-3 to 0-0 lead after ten minutes, while Leitrim captain and full-back Micheal McWeeney rescued his team with a block from Seán O’Donoghue.
Nevertheless, Leitrim battled and points from Domhnaill Flynn and Dean McGovern reduced the arrears to the minimum. But shortly after Cleary grabbed his second, Leitrim’s Ryan O’Rourke — who scored 0-7 in their qualifier win over Wicklow — departed with a hamstring injury.
It was a huge blow to the home side and they didn’t score again until the 23rd minute. By the time Flynn tagged on his first free Leitrim were 2-8 to 0-3 behind, and the game was already over as a contest.
Conal Ó hÁiniféin burst through before he laid off to Jamie Malone, who waltzed past Leitrim goalkeeper Cathal McCrann and side-footed home the first goal, in the 14th minute.
Points from Brennan and David Tubridy (three) made it worse before Cleary took a shot for long range, and when that fell short Brennan claimed possession and tapped into the empty Leitrim goal.
Leitrim were shell-shocked and although they went point-for-point with Clare towards the end of the half, they couldn’t find a way back.
Substitute Evan Sweeney landed the second of his five points at the start of the second-half, but Clare found the net for the third time with 15 minutes remaining. Kieran Malone powered his way through the cover and Courtney finished the job.
“We showed some good stuff, coming off the shoulder and good moves like that. It dropped a little in the second half,” said Collins.
Leitrim were rattled early but losing O’Rourke was a huge blow, even though their manager Terry Hyland says he saw his side wavering prior to that.
“Ryan is our scoring forward and he is a talisman up there,” said Hyland.
“Will I make any excuses with that? No. Okay, he is a major loss to us but it wasn’t the losing of the game, at that stage the game had gone from us because we were turning over ball and conceded goal chances.”
Leitrim won six games en route to promotion from Division 4 in the NFL this year. But big championship defeats to Roscommon and Clare will leave a sour taste after a sweet season.
“Were we streetwise? No, and that was the problem. We weren’t streetwise enough,” said Hyland.
“We coughed up the ball too easily. Clare’s first four scores came from us losing the ball in our attack. Put that down to naivety, whatever you want, they have to wisen up.
“But we got promotion, we probably won more games than they have won in several years put together.
“It is always about the next game and unfortunately we have no next one left this year.”
Scorers for Clare: E Cleary (0-7, 3 frees); G Brennan (1-3); J Malone (1-2); D Tubridy (0-5, 1 free, 1 45); É Courtney (1-0).
Scorers for Leitrim: E Sweeney (0-5, 3 frees); D Flynn (2 frees); D McGovern, S Moran (0-3 each); M Plunkett (0-2, 1 45); J Heslin (0-1).
CLARE: S Ryan; D Ryan, C Brennan, G Kelly; S Collins, A Fitzgerald, C Ó hÁiniféin; S O’Donoghue, G Brennan; E Cleary, C O’Connor, J Malone; G Cooney, D Tubridy, C O’Dea.
Subs for Clare: K Malone for J Malone (48), É Courtney for Cooney (52), G O’Brien for O’Dea (54), D Bohannon for O’Connor (58), C Murray for Tubridy (63), E O’Connor for Kelly (66).
LEITRIM: C McCrann; A Flynn, M McWeeney, C Reynolds; R Mulvey, M Plunkett, P Maguire; P Dolan, S Moran; D Flynn, S McWeeney, S Quinn; O McCaffrey, D McGovern, R O’Rourke.
Subs for Leitrim: E Sweeney for O’Rourke (13), O Madden for Reynolds (34), J Gilheaney for McCaffrey (half-time), J Heslin for Mulvey (half-time), G Plunkett for S McWeeney (50), N Brady for Flynn (74).
Referee: N Cullen (Fermanagh).
Mike Quirke reviews the GAA weekend with Oisín McConville, Donncha O'Connor and Tony Leen.