Yesterday, at the same venue, new team boss Ger O’Loughlin, better known as ‘Sparrow,’ watched from the sideline as Clare blitzed an eager but weak Down side in the first round of the Allianz League.
Afterwards, he articulated his hopes for re-building the team, following the trauma of the player revolt which unseated Mike McNamara – but with the boost of a first title in the U21 grade inspiring hope for a brighter future.
As the scoreline suggests, this was virtually all one-way traffic, notably with the sum of Down wides over the two halves comparable to Clare’s points total. And, while it was by no means a one-man show, the contribution of 2-10 by full-forward Mark Flaherty from intermediate side Killanena was the game’s chief talking point.
Down over nighted in Ennis after a six-hour bus journey (reportedly refusing an earlier start that would have facilitated supporters wishing to see the club game in the Gaelic Grounds), so manager Gerard Monan wasn’t able to put forward weariness as an excuse.
Instead, he accepted that Clare were a more experienced outfit, praised his players for their effort and was honest enough to accept that they ‘need a bit of shooting practice’.
Clare were seven points clear before Down got the first of their four first-half scores and that was in the 22nd minute following the sixth of nine wides during the period. Flaherty was prominent from an early stage, as were wing-forwards Sean Collins (first) and Jonathan Clancy and overall Clare were easily controlling the game.
Other factors included a more dominant midfield, where captain Brian O’Connell operated after filling the number six jersey in the Waterford Crystal campaign and a more than competent defence where U21 star Cian Dillon was very comfortable at full-back and Brendan Bugler showed the value of his experience in the right corner.
Flaherty got the first goal in the 31st minute, but without the excellence of Graham Clarke’s goalkeeping over the course of the opening quarter, Clare could have had three or four in the bag by then. It was 1-13 to 0-4 at the break (with Flaherty hitting 1-8) and the pattern of the game changed little on the resumption.
Down opted to use three players at midfield, leaving Dillon on his own for a while and while a series of substitutes helped them to maintain a spirited challenge, a continuing weakness in their finishing seriously limited them. Nearing the end of the game, Bugler prevented a Down goal before Flaherty found the net in the last minute of normal time.
The Clare manager admitted to being happy with the overall display, pointing out that while the panel has been together for seven weeks, they have ‘very little hurling’ done.
“I thought we played quite well in the first half, (but) we were poor enough for 20/25 minutes of the second half. That’s something we have to work on over the next couple of weeks. Against stronger opposition we’d be punished, but it’s a learning process for everybody. And we learned a good bit out of today as well.’’
Ultimately, O’Loughlin views the challenge of getting back to the first division as being of ‘the utmost importance’. The target for the Down boss is to pick up eight points, to avoid finishing near the bottom of the group. “Okay the scoreboard looks bad, but I was very proud of them. They worked, they hit wides but they still responded in the right way and fair play to them. They are training hard, the commitment is excellent and they are bonding together well.”
Scorers for Clare: M Flaherty 2-10; J Clancy 0-3; O Murphy and S Collins 0-2 each; P Donnellan (free), B O’Connell and D McMahon 0-1 each.
Scorers for Down: P Braniff 0-4 (0-2 frees); J Coyle and C Woods (free) 0-1 each.
Subs for Clare: J Conlon for Clancy (51); C Ryan for N O’Connell (55); D McMahon for Lynch (64); D Barrett for Collins (68).
Subs for Down: J McCusker for Coyle (48); P Flynn for Teague (52); E McGuinness for Keith (56); S Conlon for E Clarke (60); M Hughes for L Clarke (66).
Referee: M Haverty (Galway).