Kieran Shannon: Clare continue to max out while Cork are still Cork - for now

last Sunday against Meath showed that for now Cork are still the old Cork, and Clare are still Clare. One county underperforming, one maxing out
Kieran Shannon: Clare continue to max out while Cork are still Cork - for now

BATTLERS: Clare's Pearse Lillis and Louth's Shane Matthews, Sam Mulroy and Tom Jackson in action during the Allianz Football League match at Cusack Park, Ennis on Sunday. Pic: Eamon Ward

The hurricanes may return with February, just like so many league games last year were played in tempests, but with it being as mild as it was last Sunday, what else would you have been at than taking in a county match when you’d gone so long without one?

For me and the young fella, that meant once more making our way into Cusack Park, Ennis and all the enduring match-going traditions that go with it: though it’s strictly card-only to enter its gates nowadays, it’s still cash-only at its shop. The match programme, a packet of Mentos, a Lucozade and a cup of tea procured from what must be the most genial ground tuckshop in the country, we assumed our seats in the compact stand to see two familiar figures keeping a peripheral, almost casual, look at their teams’ respective warm-ups.

No manager now has been with the same senior county team as Colm Collins (10 seasons and counting) while no manager has been continuously managing some senior team as Mickey Harte (21 and counting). Last season underlined why both are still wanted on that sideline, Harte securing Louth a second consecutive promotion and Collins securing Clare a seventh-consecutive season in Division Two as well as a second appearance in an All Ireland quarter-final.

Last weekend in these pages David Tubridy was only half-joking when he said one of his pet hates about GAA punditry was that for almost a decade it was as if Clare had only three players: Garry Brennan, Gordon Kelly and, as the leading scorer in national league history, Tubridy himself. 

In recent years though the band started to break up. Kelly announced his retirement at the end of the 2020 season. Brennan didn’t announce his but the outcome was the same: his last day in the saffron and blue was a Covid championship loss to eventual Munster champions Tipperary. Now Tubridy has called it a day. Without such star power, you’d wonder and fear how a Clare would fare, survive. That there comes a time when they simply regress back to the county’s traditional station: division three, or worse.

For much of last Sunday that appeared the case. For long periods they hadn’t the creativity or invention to break down Louth’s massed defence and were repeatedly caught on the counter; after 20 minutes Louth had jumped into a 0-4 to no score lead. And even in the second half when they started to dominate the Louth kickout, they still struggled to translate all that possession into scores; at least four efforts drifted wide of the right upright.

Indeed for most of the game the most vocal group of supporters were Louth. Of the 1,950 souls that paid in, at least a third were members of Harte’s latest army, but for the first 70 minutes here they generated most of the noise. After the game there were several tweets that Ennis must be the hardest ground in the country to go and get a result but it would be a myth to think that the home crowd were as rabid as they would be for a Munster championship match or even what they would have been back in the days of ’92 and ’93 when John Maughan got the Banner bandwagon up and rolling. Ennis is a hard place to win simply because Clare under Collins are a hard team to beat.

Although some of those great old warriors are gone – Kelly, Brennan, Tubridy – there is now a new wave of grizzled, hardened veterans – Cian O’Dea, Cathal O’Connor, Pearse Lillis. They know how to keep grafting and keep grinding out games. For once Eoin Cleary was subdued but still the collective nous compensated for him. Aaron Griffin at full forward swung over a couple of long-range frees with the kind of nonchalance that was almost Tubridy-like.

And like with every campaign, Collins has thrown in a couple of youngsters, knowing with it they’ll sometimes sink or at least struggle before they can swim. It involves patience and sometimes impatience. Midway through the second half when rookie forward Mark McInerney was blocked down after taking on an outrageously-low percentage shot, Collins at the next break in play broke from his usual cool demeanour and roared in, “Play for the fucking team!” He provided jolts in other ways. With a few minutes of normal time remaining, Gavin Cooney was introduced upfront and immediately provided a movement and energy inside that had been lacking; one such crossfield run yielding in a mark and successful shot at the goals.

Even when Louth scored a breakaway goal to go three points ahead again entering injury time, Clare stuck at it, chipping away with point after point. In truth there wasn’t a Clare person in the ground that wouldn’t have taken a draw when they did miraculously equalise – except Jamie Malone who again conjured up a match-winning point on the run, a sheer replica of his winner against Roscommon in Croke Park last June.

And so now, instead of fearing relegation which a defeat would certainly have prompted, they’re looking again at finishing in the top half of Division Two, or at least finishing ahead of Cork.

For the last five years they’ve had a knack of finishing above Cork in the league, underlining the argument that they’re the second-best team in Munster. And yet for all that consistency it has never translated into making a Munster final.

This year it will be so marginal as to who makes the Sam Maguire and who makes the Tailteann Cup. Staying up in Division Two might not be enough. For Cork to be sure of playing for the cup named after one of their own, they will need to at least finish ahead of Clare in the league or beat them in the championship.

That they can do. Under Kevin Walsh they have one of the few coaches in the country capable of fixing many of their problems, especially leaking goals. But last Sunday against Meath showed that for now Cork are still the old Cork, and Clare are still Clare. One county underperforming, one maxing out. Maybe there’ll be a place for both of them in Sam but to ensure it they’ll first have to win the championship of one another.

More in this section

ieStyle Live 2021 Logo
ieStyle Live 2021 Logo

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Discover the great outdoors on Ireland's best walking trails

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd