What a difference a win makes.
It’s been a tempestuous four months for Clare, but at last there was a smile back on the players’ faces.
The controversy surrounding the departure of Davy O’Halloran and Nicky O’Connell from the squad, their relegation from the top flight and the team’s Munster championship exit at the hands of Limerick have all been consigned to the past. Winning games at Cusack Park in such a stylish manner tends to broaden grins.
“It’s been a great camp even when we weren’t getting the breaks during the year,” said manager Davy Fitzgerald. “The lads have always been loyal and always worked extremely hard.
“We’re delighted to get that victory. It will give us a lot of confidence which is very important.”
Twelve months’ ago, the defending All-Ireland champions were unceremoniously dumped out of the championship by Wexford. This year’s opening qualifier was a little easier for Clare, but there was no doubting the abundance of class on show from the home side.
Goals from Conor McGrath, John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell stole the headlines, but right from the off the points flowed easier for Clare. All eight players from midfield forward scored from play - they only hit four frees all day - but conversely Clare also tagged on 12 disappointing wides.
Offaly manager Brian Whalehan was hugely disappointed and it could be his turn to fend off some tough questions in the coming months. Defeat to the 2013 champions was an expected end product, but not many will forgive Offaly losing by eight points to their neighbours Laois in the Leinster championship.
“It was disappointing, you know,” said Whelahan. “I felt we came out and started well at the start of the second half. We got the first couple of scores and straight from that Clare get a very, very soft goal. I suppose that knocked any wind out of our sails.
“That really hit us for six. We were really hoping to kick on after those first two points and we didn’t.”
The return of Colm Galvin from a three-month stint in America is a huge plus for Fitzgerald and Pat Donnellan will be back from suspension next weekend to add more experience and bulk to that midfield area.
But perhaps it is Clare’s attacking resources that will bring the glint back to Fitzgerald’s eye. Once again Shane O’Donnell showed that he is the game’s in-form full-forward with a powerful display. Now, however, he has a fit again Darach Honan to share the full-forward line duties with. And with Aaron Cunningham, David Reidy and Bobby Duggan fighting for more game-time the Banner boss is spoiled for choice.
“We were out of the championship this time last year. We have a game under our belt and we’re kicking on. I’m sure Cork and Dublin will say the same this evening, They have games under their belts and they’re in the same boat,” said Fitzgerald.
In front of 14,268 supporters the Clare forwards looked hungry for scores, Kelly at midfield was masterful, while their defence was rock solid.
Two points inside the opening 60 seconds set the tone, but by the time McGrath goaled after seven minutes, the win looked a certainty.
With Kelly and McGrath particularly sharp, Clare easily opened a 1-13 to 0-9 half-time lead. They also had nine wides before the break but their accuracy improved in the second-half.
Conlon’s goal two minutes into the second-half put Clare in total control. Even centre-back Conor Ryan romped forward with three points from play after the break, but the score of the game came from Kelly’s brilliance.
It was his solo run and flick over the advancing defender that was so special, but once he picked out O’Donnell, the Éire Óg man crashed a ground-stoke past James Dempsey. Easy pickings for Clare.
T Kelly (0-8, 2 frees); C McGrath (1-4); J Conlon (1-2); S O’Donnell (1-0); Colin Ryan (2 frees), Conor Ryan, D Honan (0-3 each); S Golden (0-2), P O’Connor (0-1).
S Dooley 0-6 (6 frees), S Kinsella (0-4), S Cleary (0-2), J Bergin, J Mulrooney, P Murphy (0-1 each).
D Reidy for Conlon, A Cunningham for O’Donnell (both 53), P Flanagan for Dillon (59), D O’Donovan for Browne (60), C Galvin for Honan (63).
S Cleary for Nolan (35), S Ryan for Conneely (41), P Camon for Shortt (51), S Wynne for Currams (58), D Mooney for E Murphy (62), C Kiely for Egan (68).
John Keenan (Wicklow)