Cork and Clare must finally catch fire as stakes already high

Clare captain Gary Brennan makes his way into the Clare dressing room with the cup as Cork’s Kevin O’Donovan returns to the losing dressing room empty-handed after last month’s McGrath Cup final. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The final question put to Cork manager Ronan McCarthy during last Sunday’s post-match interview inquired as to the extent of pressure now hanging over his team as a result of their below-average league start.

“There is pressure every week,” replied McCarthy.

“Last year, we lost our first league game to Tipperary and then you had to go and try to get a win away to Down. Here now, we have a massive game away to Clare. From the point of view of qualification and to keep ourselves in the hunt, you’d think that you would need to win that game. It becomes a massive game for us.” For other reasons, too, tomorrow’s visit to Ennis - to use McCarthy’s own words - is a massive fixture for Cork.

You must go back to May 26th for Cork’s last competitive victory (excluding pre-season competitions). That’s just shy of eight and a half months. Their last four games have ended without a win, which brings another layer of pressure to their trip to Cusack Park.

In terms of the Division 2 table, whoever comes off second best at Ennis and finds themselves with one point after three rounds will face quite a climb to escape the bottom two by the end of March. And considering that teams who finished on six points were relegated to the third tier in two of the last three years, that won’t be easily done.

Joe Garry is a former Clare minor, U21 and junior football manager, and across those three roles has worked with a significant number of Colm Collins’ panel. The Cooraclare native, who is Clare FM’s football analyst and who masterminded the county’s shock Munster U21 championship win over Kerry in 2007, says the Banner need the two points on offer tomorrow every bit as much as Cork.

“Sunday is Clare’s second of only three home games in the league. If they take no points from their first two home games, it becomes a relegation battle from here on in.” Rather than attempting to achieve consolidation and secure a fourth spring in the second-tier, Garry believes the collective focus of Collins’ setup should be to challenge for promotion to the top flight.

“We would say we need to be moving out of Division 2 and keeping an upward curve because this is our third year in it and we did finish third last year. We are not that far away from taking down one of these big teams. You would feel that Clare are now at a consistent level where, hopefully, the day isn’t too far away that we may end up in a Munster final. We were most unlucky against Armagh last year in the qualifiers. The more times we play the Meaths, Donegals, Armaghs and Kildares of this world, the better prepared we will be.”

That Cork are on their third manager in the five and a bit years that Colm Collins has been patrolling the sideline for Clare tells another story.

In that time he has hauled the Banner from the basement division to some might argue, the second ranked side in the province.

“The fundamental thing, as I see it, is that there is a standard set among players and management and if you don’t meet it, you are shown the door. “There is no tolerance of anybody who is not willing to commit fully,” says Garry of Collins’ influence.

“A lot of the players who are coming through the minor and U20 ranks are not content with just playing underage, they want to contribute to this senior panel. There has been a raising of standards and a consistent meeting of those standards. Colm won two Clare senior football championships with Cratloe.

Wherever he goes, there is generally an upping of the standard. It is not done in a high-profile way. Players have bought into it in a huge way.

Garry was present at all recent meetings of Cork and Clare, including January’s McGrath Cup decider in Miltown-Malbay, a game which the home side won. His opinion of this Cork team is that they are lacking in consistency, a widely held view.

“We, like a lot of the country, are waiting for Cork to kick-start. We know there is plenty of talent there, they have more talent than most counties. Down in Páirc Uí Rinn last year, Cork looked like a Division 1 side, at times. But when the lull came, Cork looked very, very ordinary. Ronan McCarthy has his work cut out trying to get consistency.

“Cork will feel they should not be in Division 2, but the league table won’t lie at the end of the campaign. If you’re good enough to be out of it, you will be, if you’re not, you won’t. There’ll be nothing in tomorrow’s game. Clare are without Cathal O’Connor (suspended) and Eoin Cleary (thumb injury), while a couple of players have yet to catch fire. Here’s hoping Sunday will ignite them.”

Indeed, one county’s spring could well ignite with victory tomorrow.

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