DIFFICULT times for Clare hurlers, faced by a variety of challenges and uncertainty about their prospects in the Munster championship.
Over the last few years they have lost a stream of star players — iconic midfielder Colin Lynch being the most recent, forced out by a back problem — and it means that Niall Gilligan is the only link with the All-Ireland winning team of ‘97. To, to add to their woes, they were recently relegated.
“This is my ninth year with Clare, barring the season of 2007 when I was cycling (across Canada, raising finance for charity),’’ says key forward Tony Griffin. “Looking around the dressing room, it is a very different team. There is no Seanie McMahon, no Frank Lohan and no Davy Fitzgerald. And it’s only in the last three years that most of those players bowed out.’’
Taking account of the way the team has evolved, it’s hardly surprising to hear him say that they had “at least” one new player in every line of the field over the course of the league — sometimes two — and there were even days when both midfielders were newcomers.
“That’s a big change and we didn’t take into account that it could have such an affect on us. But, there are still eight weeks to go to the Championship and that is a long time in terms of training and getting our form back.’’
Recently launching a new business, Sports Academy International (they organise and coordinate training camps for elite teams), he says Lynch’s departure has highlighted the fact they have “such a young panel”, involving anything up to seven under-21 players.
Lynch’s absence during the league was particularly felt, says Griffin, because of his leadership qualities.
Now, to lose him for good in mid-season represents “a blow” to their championship prospects (Clare are facing the winners of the Cork v Tipperary game).
In the past, he wonders if some players might have “abdicated their responsibility in leading the team” because Lynch was there. Whether or which, the opportunity is now being presented to come to the fore and take on that duty.
In terms of how the public should assess Clare’s standing in the Munster pecking order, Griffin accepts that their league form indicates that they have fallen down the list, pointing out that none of the leading teams “have changed too much” in recent times,
With them, however, the opposite is the case. Players have to be found if they are to rise to the top again. “The one thing from my point of view we can’t do is lose self-belief. We can’t lose the belief that we can develop a team that is good enough over the next three years to be competitive,” says Griffin.
In the meantime, he hopes that followers will get behind the team and be more understanding of their current situation. “We lost to Limerick away after being 11 points down and pulling it back to a point gap. Then we lose to Waterford at home and the public, the radio station and the two local papers start to say: ‘What is wrong with this team?’
“For us as players it is important not to let that seep into our consciousness,” says Griffin. “At least 50 times people have asked me ‘what’s wrong’ with Clare — not ‘what’s right’. I think there is a lot right with Clare. For instance, John Conlan, the young forward from Clonlara, went out and probably broke even or got the better of Tommy Walsh in the league. They are the kind of players that show what is right.
“You never want to go out and not represent yourself well. Very often what the league can do is give you a lot of self belief going into the championship. I know we trained quite hard for the first two league games right up to the day before. It is very easy with small little issues when you are losing to become big issues quickly.’’
Expressing confidence that they can turn things around in the time remaining before the provincial semi-final (on June 21), Griffin accepts that there is an onus on players like himself to lift their standard. “There are players that have been around for the last three or four years who aren’t playing as well as they know they can. When you have one or two players not playing well you can get over it in the league. But, if you have six or seven of your best players who aren’t playing well every weekend, then that’s half your team.’’
So, in a nutshell, that is the challenge confronting Mike McNamara and his squad. Reproduce the form they showed last year when they shocked league champions Waterford in the first round and then put out Limerick, and you’ll be taking about a very different team.
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