Promotion or relegation matters are never decided on the first weekend in February, but at the same time a sneak preview of the way things might pan out over the course of the seven-match campaign can loom very large.
That’s especially true for the Clare footballers in their fourth successive season Division 2, where the line between flirting with the top flight and firefighting down the other end of the table has always been very thin.
Having experienced both ends of the spectrum in recent years, Clare know the importance of getting early points on the board, particularly in light of the opening weekend blank when losing out to a late John Heslin free against Westmeath in Mullingar.
Ahead of this Sunday’s clash against Kildare in Cusack Park, Clare’s manager Colm Collins and captain Eoin Cleary have heaped pressure on the side to kickstart their season at the second attempt.
“Sunday is a vital game,” admits Cleary, “because when you lose the first game you’re going to put more emphasis on the next game to try and get a result, build confidence in the group and get points on the board”.
“On any given day any of the teams can beat each other because all the games in this division are very competitive,” says Collins. “We are hoping for a big performance and need to get our own house in order to get the two points,” he adds.
Both have highlighted the deficiencies against Westmeath, something to act as a lightning rod for a much improved performance needed against a Kildare side buoyed by a first round victory over Fermanagh.
“We will be looking for a big improvement,” says Collins.
“Against Westmeath we took some crazy shots in the first half. We have talked a lot about this, we took those shots, didn’t nail them, and that cost us dearly.”
“We were a bit all over the place,” says Cleary.
“It wasn’t near good enough and was well off the standard required to compete in this division. You need to be bringing a lot of hunger and aggression into your games.
“In the first 15 minutes against Westmeath we looked very strong. Gavin Cooney got a good goal early on, but we didn’t kick on from that and ultimately Westmeath wanted it a bit more than us and they pushed on near the end to win.
“We were a kick of a ball away from getting a result, but still we didn’t perform. We were lucky to come close to getting a result. We kicked on near the end and hit four out of the last five points, but the one they got at the end was the most crucial score.”
Sunday’s game will be the first National League meeting between the sides in Cusack Park in 21 years, while in the two decades since then Kildare have held sway in all but one of their meetings in either league or championship.
Clare’s lone success came in 2016 when a contribution of 1-6 from Cleary, the highlight of which was a winning point seven minutes into injury time, gave Collins’ side victory in the Division 3 decider in Croke Park.
“We have had a right few games with Kildare over the years,” says Collins. “They always have a decent side, but we have to concentrate on ourselves. We need to play, we need to perform as we can and that’s bringing our A game into Cusack Park That’s the only concern I have, that we bring our A game and really go for it. If we do we can take the two points.”