Careless whispers. Chinese whispers. Bold children in the corner. Poor Michael Ryan. He may not end up doing any better than Babs or Nicky when it comes to retaining the MacCarthy Cup, but at least they weren’t required to worry about social media on top of fretting about their corner-backs. WhatsApp, doc, indeed. The sooner the first round of the qualifiers comes around, the better.
What were your correspondent’s circle of intimates discussing a few Saturday nights ago? The usual. That gravest and most eternal of questions. Who’ll win the All-Ireland?
Tipperary? Nah. Not at 6/4, thank you very much. (This is an example of what’s known as being wise before the event.) Kilkenny? Not in view of their recent state of half-dress.
Galway? Every chance, except they’ll have to go and do it first. Until then, there’s no shame in our doing Doubting Thomas on it.
Waterford? Among the contenders, certainly, with their recent low profile an encouraging sign.
For the record, nobody at the table cited Cork. We were just concluding No Bet was the order of the day, there being such solid cases for the prosecution to be made against all of the leading candidates, when someone mentioned Clare. Oh yes, we murmured, Clare.
That’s been the general murmur of late too. Clare. Dark horses for the championship. Live outsiders. Four years ago they came straight outta Cratloe, novices with attitude, to claim a wide-open championship. Four years later the 2017 championship is equally wide open; one of the provincial kings lost his head in Thurles last Sunday week and the other will do well to keep his at Wexford Park this night week. Now all Clare have to do is rediscover the spirit and momentum of 2013. Simple.
At the very least they ought to be be sufficiently mature and sufficiently hardened by the intervening bad days to be ripe for a second coming, as their predecessors of 1995 had been sufficiently hardened by their share of bad days for a first coming. That said, their recent hammering of Galway behind closed doors in Ennis in what’s become the most talked of challenge match for ages, an encounter cited as proof that they’re “flying in training”, should be taken with a soupcon of salt.
Clare led by three points after a well contested first half. On the turnaround the inevitable First Law of Challenge Matches duly kicked in: lads were thrown on and others hauled off by the new time. A contest became an exercise in obligation.
The outline of the case against Clare can be encapsulated in two questions. Does a single Allianz League campaign constitute enough of a decontamination period to ensure that all the toxins from the latter stages of Davy Fitz’s tenure have been flushed out? And are two first-season intercounty managers really likely to win an All-Ireland on their maiden voyage?
Clare may have been a young team in 2013 but Davy had been around the block several times by then, with Waterford as well as with Clare, and had tried and tested his theories in any number of laboratories, both third-level and intercounty. Would you really fancy Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor to clean Brian Cody’s clock at Croke Park in September if it came to it?
That the new managerial ticket will bring about an improvement and formulate a sensible, coherent playing style is a reasonable expectation. That they’ll somehow wave a wand and get everything right at the first time of asking is not.
On the face of it, they’re up against the weakest team in the province here. The twist is that this is Clare versus Limerick, and Clare/Limerick clashes frequently — not invariably, but often enough for the favourites on any given day to tread warily — take on a life of their own.
Limerick will only go so far this year. That’s the way it is. Clare may only go so far too but their ceiling is higher. If one of the pair is to win Munster or an All-Ireland quarter-final, it’ll be they. Yet Limerick are likelier to beat Clare now than in two months’ time. That’s the way it is too.
Similarly, the more spartan and frill-free an approach Clare adopt tomorrow, the better for their opponents. Limerick were forced to try and shape-shift to meet their neighbours’ configuration in last summer’s qualifier. They hated every minute of this enforced contortion. If John Kiely has the men in green playing the breakneck, hip-to-hip stuff of old, he’ll have gone a considerable way towards placating his customer base.
But there’s the rub. In big-picture terms, both teams have yet to provide an answer to a critical question. What kind of gameplan are they trying to enact? Are they sure themselves, come to that?
Most of the other contenders have obvious USPs. Galway have gone for size, Cork for speed, Tipperary for a magnesium-flare full-forward line. Wexford Park next week will pit a team revelling in their deployment of a spare man with a vacuum cleaner in front of the full-back line against a team revelling in being Cody’s Kilkenny. Tomorrow’s is the one fixture of the championship involving two sets of protagonists in search of a clear identity.
One doesn’t have to hail from the eastern environs of that broad majestic waterway to hope Kiely catches a break sooner rather than later. He knew on taking it this wasn’t a job sent from heaven; he may still have been surprised to discover just how much purgatory came attached with. The seven-goal trimming by Cork in January, the unfortunate defeat at Wexford Park on the opening weekend of the league that strangled their promotion challenge at birth, the brace of comprehensive dismissals by Galway.
If Diarmuid Byrnes, one of very few bright spots against Clare in that qualifier when he landed three points from out the field, is unavailable, he’ll be missed. Limerick are one of those teams — Wexford are another — that will always need a point or two from one of their wing-backs to get over the line. Mark Foley fulfilled such a role a few years back. Seamus Hickey did so in more recent times. The absence of Byrnes would detract from their bottom line tomorrow.
As a forward, Declan Hannon never revisited his heights of the afternoon of the Croke Park downpour against Kilkenny and rarely appeared likely to. Anchoring the defence will keep him necessarily more involved.
As for Clare, one trusts they too will have a go, take the poker out of their posteriors, indulge in all sorts of strange activities such as trying to score goals and generally give the impression they’re enjoying themselves again. It’s not too much to hope for.
It’s likely to be the antithesis of Cork/Tipp. Not nearly as highscoring, remotely as free-flowing. While neither side possesses the same complement of bruisers as they did 20 years ago there may still be a couple of hurleys broken early on, and if not then both teams will be in dereliction of duty and heritage. Was it for this that Ollie Baker and Mike Houlihan used to take lumps out of one another?
This is Clare and Limerick, remember. With, tomorrow, one side in search of the new Limerick and the other trying to rediscover the old Clare.
Probably Clare, with their greater spread of pointscorers, but still. No Bet.