It happens so often now, it immediately triggers one of the biggest clichés in football.
Clare win a game or reach a spot in the league or championship that you mightn’t have expected of them and whoever is sitting across from Joanne on a Sunday night will mention how “Colm Collins has done a fantastic job with Clare”.
But that’s usually where they leave it. That’s about as discerning as they get, that’s as much insight as we’re offered.
As amenable and accessible as Collins is in his dealings with the media, we’ve precious little clue as to just how he has done one of the most remarkable managerial jobs in county football for close to a decade. We only know his achievements — that at the outset of 2014 he took over a county that had been stuck in the basement division for over a decade and is now just 70 minutes away from playing in Division 1, having reached an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2016 and come within a point of making the Super 8s in 2019. We know almost nothing about his methods, his magic.
Alan Flynn, Brian Carson and Eiven Shanahan all do though. In the five seasons prior to this one, they all served as selectors to Collins at one point or another.
Flynn, an All-Ireland U21 winning manager with Galway, coached Clare their first two years up in Division 2 before Carson, a Dubliner lecturing and coaching in UL, took that baton and coached the team in 2019 and 2020. Shanahan, a native of Doonbeg but long domiciled in Dublin, was there for four seasons himself, beginning in 2016 after getting a call from his old friend who he has known since they were in Flannan’s together back in the ’70s.
And just as they credit Collins for giving them and any other backroom member plenty of autonomy and scope, we’ll hand it over to them to explain how Colm Collins ticks and how he helps make Clare tick.
CARSON: I think a lot of it stems from the kind of person Colm is. He’s a very affable character, and very conscientious, very empathetic. You read a lot in coaching books and in other sports about coaching the person, as well as the athlete, and Colm is the ideal example of that. And not in a textbook, stilted way, just in a very natural way.
SHANAHAN: He’s like a father figure to the players, like a guardian angel over them. He looks after them in a holistic way.
I remember when Dermot Coughlan badly broke his ankle up in Armagh and was in a boot for months. And Colm obviously thought about it: How is that lad getting around the place, day-to-day? Normally he might have walked to college, how is he getting there now. So he quietly asked Dermot, and he said, ‘Well, sometimes I get a lift and sometimes I’ve to get a bus and...’ And Colm just said, ‘Just get a taxi. Give me the bill. I’ll pay for that.’ Now in some respects, that’s a small thing but it means a lot to players.
FLYNN: I learned an awful lot from Colm. He is very good at understanding what a particular player needs at a particular time. And a lot of it comes from him simply being a very nice, genuine man and it also comes from him understanding that in a county like Clare he doesn’t have a huge pick. So his outlook is, ‘I need to look after the players and know them inside out. I have to make sure that I can get the most out of every player who could potentially play senior for Clare.’
SHANAHAN: He knows every single footballer in Clare. Anybody who kicks a ball in that county, he knows who they are.
He’s at every secondary schools’ match, every college match a Clare man might be playing in, every club game he can. He’s on the ground.
CARSON: It’s never been an issue that he’s still been coaching Cratloe [simultaneously] because there’s never been a time that Clare football has suffered as a result. If anything it helps. He’s getting to see up close who is moving well with their clubs. He knows who’s coming through.
SHANAHAN: And not only does he know every footballer in Clare, but it’s also like he knows everyone in Clare. Like, I’m from Doonbeg, who wouldn’t exactly be best friends with Colm’s home club [Kilmihil] after them losing four county finals in a row to us back in the day! But he’d know all my family. ‘Wouldn’t such-and-such be your second cousin removed?’ And I’d be there, scratching my head. ‘Yeah, I suppose they are!’ He’d be telling me, like. He knows them all. He knows everybody. Because he takes an interest in people.
CARSON: I remember a couple of years ago before the championship we went on a camp and our performance coach was facilitating this conversation about who and what we were playing for, and each player spoke about and identified who was Clare for them: maybe a parent, an old coach, a family member that really mattered to them. And what was amazing to me was that every single person they named, Colm knew them; he was able to say to the facilitator beside him, ‘They now would be a brother of…’ He’d another backstory about that person.
And that knowledge of Clare and that player and their circumstances would regularly come out in training sessions or management meetings. If a player needed a leeway coming up to something say like a family wedding, he’d give them that bit of leeway which meant when he needed them they’d go to the well for him. A players’ form might have dipped slightly and the rest of the management might be saying, ‘We should go with someone else for this one’ but Colm would be able to give a bit of context. Maybe something at work, college, home, a girlfriend. ‘That corner has been turned, they’re good to go now.’ So his background knowledge of every player and his ability to see them as people first is instrumental in him getting the most out of them.
FLYNN: He has a nice mix of being able to be cool and calm but he also knows when to light a fire.
SHANAHAN: I remember in the lead-up to some big match he was making a particular point and he was sticking out the finger, and saying, ‘And that is non-f**ing-negotiable!’ It was typical of that unique Irish way of putting an expletive in the middle of a word for the sake of emphasis.
FLYNN: He keeps things very simple. He knows what’s important. He’s able to pinpoint before a game, ‘Right, these are the threes we need to do to win this game. We’re going to score a goal in the first quarter of the game, we’re going to win this many kickouts, we’re going to hold them to 14 points. If we do those things we’re going to be on the right road.’ He’s talking about things, expecting that they’ll happen, and that transmits itself to the players. Like, ‘We all know what we’re doing here. We’ve got this.’
He absolutely believes that Clare should be competing against all the top teams. And that’s not made up. He carries that with him. He makes people around him believe the same thing.
CARSON: I think something a lot of counties of a similar profile or size of Clare could learn from Colm is his attitude towards third-level football. That’s how Colm and I first got to know each other; I was coaching UL and we had five Clare players on our panel — the likes of Eoin Cleary and Cian O’Dea — and Colm deeply valued Sigerson football. So while other county managers might be a bit territorial, he gave me great leeway with them. Because he could see how Sigerson was the perfect bridge between underage and senior county football. And that they were learning from good coaches and playing with good players from counties like Kerry and Cork and Galway and Mayo. And that they’d be chatting with them and seeing the similarities as to how they and Clare prepared and seeing that these fellas bleed red too.
SHANAHAN: One of the things he definitely went after from the start was Sigerson football. And as the years progressed you’ve seen more and more Clare players being to the fore with teams playing at the business end of the Sigerson. My last year there  you had the likes of Cónal Ó hAnaiféin and Eimhin Courtney winning a Sigerson with UCC. And that has a positive knock-on effect. It raises the profile of Clare and the expectations and awareness of our lads.
FLYNN: He always has an eye to the future. He’s almost like a defacto, unofficial performance director for Clare football. He’s thinking medium and long term, not just short term.
CARSON: What he’ll do is identify guys who are maybe 17, coming out of minor and send them the way of [Clare GAA athletic performance coach and senior team S&C lead] Rob Mulcahy for some initial screenings. Or take in a lad who might be in with the 20s for an extra night’s training. While they mightn’t get any game time or be an official member of the panel, they’re getting familiar with the setup, what it takes. And that’s how he’s constantly being able to rejuvenate the squad. It’s never fallen off a cliff when even fellas like Gary Brennan and Gordon Kelly go because fellas were developing for a year or two before they broke through.
SHANAHAN: Before I got involved at all with Clare [in 2016] I’d often see Colm standing outside the gate of Parnell Park towards the business end of the Dublin championships, keeping an eye on lads. From the start, he said, ‘We’ve to tap into anyone with a connection with Clare and go after them.’ Now, there are some lads we sounded out that didn’t come in with Clare but some like Shane McGrath and Pat Burke did and they were critical to getting Clare up to Division 2. I remember Pat telling me about his first session with the county team and him getting a ferocious ‘Welcome to west Clare’ hit from Gordon Kelly. It was his way of testing Pat out. ‘Are you all in here?’ And he was. And you still have that now in the likes of Eoghan Collins from Mayo. It’s only this year he’s become a mainstay on the team but he’s been with us for six years.
CARSON: The other thing I’d say about Colm is he has massive faith in the leadership in the team. He leaves a lot of it over to them to monitor and set the values and standards around the place and what it means to represent Clare football and committing to the cause fully.
And that means it’s now a seamless transition from Gary Brennan leaving to Eoin Cleary taking over as captain, because while Eoin will put his own stamp and personality on it, those values and standards are now long a given.
You don’t hear of any scandals coming out of Clare football. They’re all living the life of a Clare footballer and being ambassadors of Clare GAA.
FLYNN: You don’t hear of any big burst-up or lads walking away in Clare, which is unusual for a county that hasn’t won actual silverware. And I think that’s because the lads are actually enjoying it. It’s not just a soundbite, they find it a bit of crack, the football is good and that they’re getting the best out of themselves. And a lot of that comes from believing in Colm. ‘God he’s doing his best for us, isn’t he?’
SHANAHAN: In my time at the end of every season there’d be a review process where the players would send in their thoughts which [then captain] Gary [Brennan] would then collate. And one year there was a line from one player, “I’d drink piss off a nettle for Colm Collins!’
Now I doubt the language will be that colourful this year! But I think the sentiment will be much the same.