He was “delighted” to have them but that’s all they were. He was in pure league managerial mode, talking about how there was “still a lot of football to be played in this division”, how Clare would need more points to be sure of avoiding relegation, and how all that mattered now was their next game away to Fermanagh.
When it was put to him though that this was more than just your average win some Sunday in March, given Cork have been one of Clare’s two great oppressors for generations, Collins conceded it probably was. He referenced a game in Kilmallock when David Tubridy and Joe Hayes beat Cork as minors and how that had been “a great night”.
“We haven’t beaten them that much, so it [this league win] was good in that context all right.”
It was better than good when you look at it in several contexts. Not only did they beat Cork at senior level for the first time since Martin Daly’s immortal injury-time goal in 1997 at the same venue but they won – convincingly – without Gary Brennan.
Last week’s defeat to Galway in Salthill had seemed to confirm the widespread theory no team in the country is more dependent on one player than Clare on their Ballyea-tied man.
Clare have been quietly notching up an impressive list of milestones during Colm Collins’ tenure, and beating a county of Cork’s status without him was another significant one; shame there were just 985 people present to witness it.
At times yesterday, Brennan’s regular midfield wingman Cathal O’Connor could have been mistaken for Brennan, such was his comfort and strength in possession, and the grace with which he kicked a crucial long-range point early in the third quarter.
In the half forward line, Brennan’s brother, Shane, was another who stepped up in the absence of the captain while simultaneously following his example. Once he kicked Clare ahead for the first time within seconds of the start of the second-half, he was constantly on the ball.
And not only did Clare win without their International Rules star but they won without scoring for the first 25 minutes. “I thought we stood off them far too much in the first-half,” Collins would say, “and it wasn’t really what we had intended to do.”
The only thing was, Cork were only marginally better. Although three different players from back the field – midfielder Aidan Walsh and half-backs Tomás Clancy and James Loughrey – came up to each kick a fine score, the tempo of their play in the face of Clare’s massed defence was pedestrian.
“We started at a certain pace,” Cork selector Eoin O’Neill would concede afterwards, “and it wasn’t enough.” Although Donncha O’Connor was leading the line well enough, there was, outside the odd hotstep from Luke Connolly, a serious dearth of creativity upfront.
For all that, Cork seemed to be in control until a scrappy Cian O’Dea goal on 25 minutes suddenly drew Clare level. That jolted the whole thing into life, and before half-time each side kicked another couple of points each to leave it 0-5 to 1-2 at the break.
Cork had the breeze in the second-half but no direction and no real leadership. While David Tubridy was a beacon for the Clare attack, his Cork counterpart Donncha O’Connor had to hobble off on the stroke of half-time with a hamstring injury.
Paul Kerrigan was a peripheral and frustrated figure. With 10 minutes to go, he boomed over a magnificent point off his left foot but that was the first score from play by a starting Cork forward all day and Cork were still trailing by four points.
It was as if at half-time Clare realised that they weren’t playing Cork of yore. There was greater boldness and directness about their game, personified by Jamie Malone who tormented Cork with his runs and trickery.
And when with four minutes to go he linked up with Eoin O’Cleary to fire to the net, history was beckoning. A couple of minutes earlier Cork had a goal disallowed but even if that decision seemed dubious, there was nothing undeserving about Clare’s win.
In injury-time Colm O’Neill’s penalty came off the inside of the post and was cleared, summing up Cork’s day.
J Malone 1-1, D Tubridy 0-4 (3f), E Cleary 0-3 (1f, 45), S Brennan, C O’Connor and C Russell 0-1 each.
N Corkery 0-2 (frees), A Walsh, T Clancy, J Loughrey, L Connolly (45), C O’Neill, P Kerrigan and M Shields 0-1 each.
Joe Hayes; M McMahon, K Hartnett, John Hayes; L Markham, G Kelly, D Ryan; C O’Connor, C Russell; C O’Dea, K Sexton, S Brennan; E Cleary, D Tubridy, J Malone.
D Egan for O’Dea (half-time).
R Price; K Crowley, Tom Clancy (Clonakilty), M Shields; S Cronin, J Loughrey, Tomás Clancy (Fermoy); A Walsh, R Deane; B O’Driscoll, L Connolly, J O’Rourke; N Coakley, D O’Connor, P Kerrigan.
C O’Neill for O’Connor (inj, 35 mins), M Collins for O’Driscoll (42), D Óg Hodnett for Connolly (47), I Maguire for O’Rourke (49), K Davis for Coakley (59), C O’Driscoll for Crowley (64).
A Ward (Westmeath).
People are hurting... everyone is giving it a lot of effort
When the Clare footballers last beat Cork 20 years ago, Brian Corcoran would later describe the losing dressing room as the quietest he’d been in.
A team that had training like Navy SEALs to win that year’s All-Ireland had been knocked out in the first round.
“Nothing was said,” Corcoran would write in his autobiography. “There was just the sound of dripping water and of shattered dreams.”
The mood inside the same visitors’ dressing room in Cusack Park would hardly have been any lighter yesterday, but there were some subtle differences.
For one, it wasn’t quiet in there. When Cork finally emerged from it 45 minutes after the final whistle, team selector Eoin O’Neill conceded that.
“People are hurting. People aren’t happy. What’s said in the dressing room stays inside the dressing room but it’s something we’re going to have to address within our group — what we’re doing and how we’re trying to get performances out of the lads.
“There’s no point saying that it’s not frustrating. It’s very disappointing. Everyone inside there is giving it a lot of effort. Players, management, backroom team; we have great guys involved with us.”
Although Cork had a goal disallowed with 10 minutes to go that would have brought them back to within a point, O’Neill said Cork could have “no complaints — the best team won”.
“I think they outscored us four points to nothing in the third quarter and that’s the moving quarter in matches. We found it very hard to get back into it then. They played defensively, we pushed on, left a few gaps and they got a goal then that killed the game off.”
When asked whether promotion was now beyond them, O’Neill said, “I think we have a bigger issue now. We just have to go out and get ourselves right now for 35 minutes against Meath in two weeks’ time. We’ve to bring it down to that.”