Shortly after I had pulled into the car park at the back of Nowlan Park stand on Saturday evening at 4.55pm, the Wexford player Conor McDonald drove in beside me. I said hello to him and the handful of lads with McDonald before they strolled into the dressing rooms and I headed to the press box.
It’s still strange times, especially before big championship games, but, while there still aren’t throngs of people milling around Kilkenny City or Thurles on game-day, there is still a better feeling around than there was last winter when the atmosphere was as cold and damp as the weather.
Of course, the bright summer sunshine will alter your mood, but the dynamic is still different with that extra handful of supporters present. The banter even walking out to the car afterwards was refreshing and invigorating because those kinds of interactions have been siphoned out of big championship days.
“How can we play a sweeper and a half Antnee,” one Laois fella said to me ‘and still manage to concede 5-31.”
“Would someone just say to someone, ‘Mark your man’,” I replied. “Can we not forget about systems for a small while and let the loose fella at the back be an assistant defender for every other lad marking his man.”
There didn’t seem to be anyone marking anyone in the game. You probably notice more nuanced detail without the noise and distractions of big crowds, on and off the field. As I was co-commentating alongside Darragh Maloney, I sometimes found myself glancing around at some of the faces of the 200 supporters present.
There’s no doubt that parents, partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings, grandparents – whoever — often go to matches in fear and trepidation at what they might hear about their loved ones around them. They often have the heads down, but those family members seemed to be far more relaxed, but also far more animated than normal.
Davy Fitzgerald was only two boxes away from us in the press area, which added to the theatre. Throughout the match, it was clear that many of the Wexford supporters had one eye on the match and another eye on what was going on behind them.
I would love to have been in Thurles yesterday but the closest I got to the action was putting on an old Clare jersey in the house after the match. I fitted back into it too, in case there are any smart fellas thinking I was bursting out of it.
It wasn’t a jersey I had once worn as a player, it was one I got off Joe Connolly, the former Galway captain, after a charity walk. “What do ye think?” I asked my daughters before I went back down to work behind the counter of the pub for the evening. “Ok,” they replied. Let’s just say there wasn’t any six-pack visible through the garment.
Everyone was buzzing in the pub because of such a brilliant performance. It was a great lift for everyone in the county, especially after so much negativity in the press earlier in the year. Clare’s 23 wides, as opposed to Waterford’s 15, told a large part of the story of this match but you’d take conceding 21 points any day now.
When Waterford got the deficit back to a goal, you were asking yourself ‘How is this happening?’ But that risk is always there when you miss so much.
RTÉ produce some brilliant stats from Johnny Bradley and Brian McCleland. At half-time, their numbers showed that Waterford had lost 22 possessions to Clare’s 12. But in the last quarter, Clare lost 14 possessions to Waterford’s eight. Those numbers correlated so much with the pattern of the game.
Waterford will be very disappointed but losing so many big players had to be a factor in such a below-par display. On the other hand, they didn’t do themselves any favours either, on the field and on the line.
I mentioned here on Saturday about the Tony Kelly-Calum Lyons match-up, and the risk that would entail for Waterford. It was very clever from Brian Lohan to play Tony in the full-forward line, the one place Lyons didn’t want to be, but I couldn’t understand why Liam Cahill was willing to dilute the scoring threat Lyons had posed from deep throughout the league.
Allowing John Conlon — who Waterford effectively allowed play as a sweeper — to play so much easy ball was crazy stuff. Repeatedly pucking it down his neck was even crazier again when John is so good in the air and so comfortable on the ball.
Maybe we were all a little guilty of writing Clare off too early because it’s only three years since John was an All-Star. Having Colm and Ian Galvin back reminded everyone of how much they were missed last year.
Aidan McCarthy and Diarmuid Ryan, two of the best young players in the country, have also come into that team. So has Ryan Taylor, who worked really hard again. Rory Hayes came on in that 2018 All-Ireland semi-final and he was outstanding again yesterday. Paul Flanagan really stepped up too.
Conor Cleary proved again why he is one of the most underrated players Clare have ever produced, while a half back line that was too static last year against Waterford were much flexible and fluid. Paidi Fitzpatrick completely obliterated Jack Fagan, while it was also great to see Davy McInerney getting game-time.
It’s amazing how everything can change over one weekend. For everyone that was talking Waterford up as serious contenders, you had nearly the same amount of people predicting Wexford’s demise.
That certainly looks to be premature now after Saturday evening’s evisceration of Laois. All of Wexford’s big guns performed and Laois couldn’t lay a glove on them.
Wexford got five goals and were full value for them because they could have got more. They were never noted as a goalscoring team, but Wexford definitely seem to have realised that they’re not Limerick, and that trying to outscore teams on points won’t do anymore, even if they don’t concede goals themselves.
They won’t want to be looking back at this stage but if Wexford had been more gung-ho and had gone for more goals when they had Tipperary on the rack in the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final, that would have won the game. There were plenty of stages on Saturday when handy points were on but Wexford players dropped the shoulder and hunted for green flags.
The return to form of Conor McDonald was also a big boost.
He saw very little game-time in the league but as soon as I saw him getting out of the car on Saturday evening, I was struck by how lean and mean he looked. And that’s how he performed on Saturday.
It’s a sad thing to say but Laois looked in disarray. It’s a real pity for someone as genuine as ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett, who has put his heart and soul into Laois hurling, but the hiding they took on Saturday was just another in a catalogue of bad beatings in 2021.
I watched the Dublin-Antrim game on a deferred showing on GAAGO yesterday morning after listening to the match on the way to Kilkenny on Saturday evening. It was a great display by the Dubs, especially when they’d been so written off for the summer before the game. Dublin still have a lot to prove but it’s only two years since they knocked Galway out of the championship and they went into this game in the perfect manner given how hyped up Antrim were after their impressive league showing.
Antrim played like a team with the attitude of, ‘We’ve done well in the league, we’ll give the championship a go, and we’ll build again in Division 1 next year’. Maybe I’m wrong but if those kinds of thoughts are anywhere in your head before a championship game, you’re goosed.
It was no surprise to me that Neil McManus was the one guy who offered most resistance, scoring six points from play.
McManus has been around the block long enough to realise that the league is the league and that the championship is a whole different animal again.
McManus has that big-game experience that very few of his Antrim teammates have, especially when compared to the worldliness of so many of the Dublin players. Dublin may not have the medals, but a lot of these guys have been through a lot by this stage of their careers.
It was an underwhelming opening championship weekend, but the result is all that matters, especially for the supporters. Everyone would love to be there to bask in the warm afterglow, but most people are happy once their county wins.
One of the local lads won the guess-the-score competition in the pub to secure a bottle of local whiskey which is being distilled in Cooraclare. He was definitely happy. But so was everyone else in Clare.