As much as Clare have progressed and consolidated under the masterful watch of Colm Collins, they’ve developed a regrettable tendency to foil glorious chances to nail a big trophy head upon the wall.
In the 2016 championship they had both Kerry and Mayo on the rack in Cusack Park, and while they’ve subsequently beaten Roscommon in the qualifiers and Cork twice in Division Two, this was the chance to finally beat a team that had been at the business end of the championship the previous summer.
Though Declan Bonner refrained from starting with any survivor from the county’s 2012 All-Ireland triumph — Leo McCloone only joining the action midway through the second half — they still began with eight of the team that won last year’s Ulster final. Even without any Murphy or McBrearty or McGlynn, McGrath or Mac Niallais, they would have represented a serious scalp.
And it was on. Clare were good. Even when they trailed by two points at half-time, they had kicked eight points, higher than any other losing team did in one half of football yesterday.
Then when they came out of the blocks to kick three consecutive points, all scored and created by the excellent veteran duo of David Tubridy and Gary Brennan, they had numerous chances to stretch the lead to two, and nail an inexperienced Donegal team that appeared rattled, kicking six straight wides of their own.
But just as they conceded two careless points in added time of the first half, Clare then made a number of unforced errors around the Donegal 45, ball that should have gone to hand instead going to the knees, causing the ball to spill. Jamie Malone, who has so often tormented big teams with his pace and directness, lacked his usual zest, just coming back from injury, while the absent Eoin Cleary’s poise and accuracy were also missed in the closing half-hour.
After going 20 minutes without a score at one stage in the second half, they brought it back to one in added time through young Gavin Cooney just off the bench, only for the Éire Óg kid to send his next shot wide before the visitors kicked the last two points of the game.
Afterwards, Collins didn’t hide his disappointment, not so much that his team had failed to take down a big name, but rather that they’d let two precious points at home go astray in such a competitive division.
“We should have got something from it. We just lacked a small bit of cuteness to get the win. A couple of times we took the wrong options up there. We could have been a bit more patient, where one more pass might have led to a score.”
It was a particularly entertaining first half. As Collins would point out, Donegal’s shooting efficiency in that period was “off the scales” — a whopping 91% according to him and his stats team — before, as he’d phrase it, they’d “come down to earth a bit” in the third quarter.
Michael Langan at full forward, in Murphy’s absence, converted four frees, several of which he won himself by getting out in front of an otherwise impressive Cillian Brennan, while Ciaran Thompson, Niall O’Donnell, Jason McGee and Jamie Brennan would all score from range.
But Clare carried a threat themselves. Newcomer Dermot Coughlan from Kilmurry-Ibrickane showed well, kicking a fine point and tracking back effectively, as did their other wing forward Cian O’Dea, before running out of steam in the last quarter.
Gary Brennan was magnificent all through, kicking three trademark points on the run from midfield and laying the ball off well when pushed further upfield.
And at the back they were solid. As Collins would allude to afterwards, they never coughed up a goal chance, while they spurned a good one themselves, Keelan Sexton hitting the side-netting in the fifth minute after being put through by a brilliant pass from the inside of Cathal O’Connor’s right boot.
“I thought in the third quarter we were quite poor,” Declan Bonner would admit, “but we got our composure back in the last quarter and finished out strong and in control of the game. There was a slight breeze down there with us in the second half and we were slightly outside our range at times. But I’ll be encouraging the players to make sure that they don’t go into their shell, to keep expressing themselves, and when those opportunities come against Meath next Saturday, that they go for them again.”
CLARE: R Eyres; K Hartnett, C Brennan, G Kelly; D Ryan (0-1), A Fitzgerald, E Collins; G Brennan (0-3), C O’Connor; C O’Dea, J Malone, D Coughlan (0-1); K Malone, K Sexton (0-1, free), D Tubridy (0-6, three frees).
Subs: P Lillis for Collins (47 mins), S Collins for K Malone (53 mins), E Tubridy for Eyres (58, inj), D Bohannon for J Malone (61), G Cooney (0-1) for Coughlan (65)
DONEGAL: S Patton; C Morrison,, B McCole, C Ward; P Brennan, E Bán Gallagher (0-1), E Doherty; H McFadden (0-1), J McGee (0-3); C Thompson (0-2), R McHugh, C McGonagle (0-1, free); J Brennan (0-3), M Langan (0-4, all frees), N O’Donnell (0-1).
Subs: M McElhinney for P Brennan (42 mins), L McCloone for McGonagle (55), S McMenamin for Gallagher (65), P Morgan for Doherty (78).
Referee: P O’Sullivan (Kerry)