I came in early yesterday morning to watch the Clare U21s play Dublin in a challenge game in Clare-abbey, our old pitch in Clarecastle.
There was a good buzz around. A few locals were knocking around. Martin Hegarty, an uncle of the Clare kitman and former Clarecastle goalkeeper, Tommy, was home from Australia. He was mad keen to see Clare in action but Martin’s mood carried the same tone as everyone else around the place; Clare just looked to be missing too many players to get a result.
For a finish, Martin got a dinger of an outcome. Despite all the bodies Clare are missing, winning is contagious. This time last year, or even the year before, Clare would have lost that game by a point or two but a sequence of wins has given the players the confidence and momentum they couldn’t find last year.
The additions to the management have obviously made a huge difference as well. As John Conlon said after the Limerick game, Dónal Óg Cusack has brought that “Cork cockiness” to Clare. It showed in spades.
You could sense it off the Clare players; they never felt the game was gone from them. Even though Tipp had gone three points ahead, there was no sense of panic in the stands either. The Cusack Park crowd was a big factor again; the place really lifted behind the players, and they duly responded.
Darach Honan, who had one of his best games in an age for Clare, dummied a fella and landed a massive point. Cathal ‘Tots’ O’Connell came on and started running at fellas, making a big contribution, especially from frees. Clare still needed a goal but they got it from young Aaron Shanagher, who had the speed to get away from the chasing pack. Shanagher’s finish reflected the great confidence of youth but the Clare sideline showed a great investment in some of those young players. David Fitzgerald came on and caught three Tipperary puck-outs.
Tipp had their chance to level the match with a late free but they had just taken off ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and it was Jason Forde’s first dead-ball strike. The lads around me were saying, ‘Extra-time now’. I wasn’t so sure. I knew it wasn’t a gimme, because it was his first one, but the miss summed up Tipp’s free-taking malfunctioning on the day.
Mick Ryan will still be wondering today how Tipp lost that game but the free-taking issue was one or the main reasons because Seamie Callanan had a nightmare from placed balls. Seamie is a class player but he has missed most of this spring and no matter how good you are, that lack of match sharpness will blunt your edge in a game when the pace and intensity is stepped up.
Callanan’s touch was off. John McGrath, who was the real jewel for Tipp, hit one ball across the square to Callanan. He had a huge amount of work to do to reach the ball but he touched it wide. A sharper Callanan would have nailed that chance. On the other hand, some of Clare’s big guns really set the tone. Clare have played different players as the sweeper throughout this league but Cian Dillon gave an exhibition of how to play that role. Tipp didn’t shove up on him. Ronan Maher hit a lot of ball as the Tipp sweeper but Dillon had more of an influence on the game.
Up front, John Conlon was magnificent. There were times when there were three Tipp fellas under a dropping ball but Conlon came running at them from ten yards away and got a hurley to those balls so often to break them away for Colm Galvin or someone else to hoover it up. That animal workrate was relieving the pressure on the Clare defence all afternoon. Clare have had a bad spate of injuries but the one player they can’t afford to lose is Conlon.
His strength was crucial for the first goal as well. That gave Clare a six point lead before Tipp reduced it to two before the break. Tipp did wrestle the control back. Brendan Maher and Padraic Maher thundered into the game. You were saying to yourself as a Clare supporter, ‘Here we go now’. But that spring in Clare’s step, that energy and raw intensity which was missing for so long, is back now. It had to be to win with the bodies Clare were missing. With those players back, Clare will take some stopping.
Clare still needed the goal to win but Diarmuid Kirwan really played the advantage rule smartly because Aaron Shanagher was being dragged back and Kirwan let him play on. In fairness to Kirwan, it was a difficult game to referee. There was a lot of hard hitting. There were rucks everywhere but he did a fine job in difficult circumstances.
Overall, Clare’s result underlined a good weekend for the Division 1B teams, apart from Offaly. Cork also produced a big performance to send Galway through the trapdoor. As Conlon says, you can’t bate that bit of ‘Cork cockiness’.
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