How do you deal with expectation?
Many times this year Patrick O’Connor has had to cope with that thorny question, first with the Clare senior side as they played their way into the hurling’s top division for next season, next in the Munster championship and All-Ireland qualifiers where they eventually succumbed to neighbours Limerick and finally with the U21s as they won Clare’s second Munster title in four years.
In that Munster campaign, with a team in which more than half of the starting 15 had seen senior championship action, Clare performed brilliantly in accounting for Waterford (minor champions of three years earlier) in the semi-final. This meant they were the hottest of favourites to take unsung Tipperary in the final, in Cusack Park to boot. As it transpired, however, it took a late, late goal from substitute Niall Arthur to see Clare home, champions once again. That win set up this afternoon’s clash with Antrim in Semple Stadium but again, expectation, again Clare hot favourites.
So Patrick, how do you deal with it? “There was huge expectation after the Waterford game and even before that, given how many players we had on the seniors. People were building us up to maybe be better than we actually are but after the first two balls went wide [in the Munster final] confidence seemed to drain out of the lads who were shooting. I felt we were playing well at the back, we were on top in midfield and were making scoring opportunities – we just weren’t taking them.”
It’s not that the Clare forwards aren’t in the same class as the backs and midfield – far from it. With an all-senior half-forward line of Aaron Cunningham, Podge Collins and Tony Kelly, team captain and ace marksman Conor McGrath on the edge of the square, they have a potentially lethal line-up. But, every dog has its off-day.
“They’ve made a reputation for themselves now. It was kind of freak what happened that day — I’ve no doubt they’ll shoot the lights out again if we’re lucky enough to get through on Saturday. We’ve been working on shooting in training since but I’d have no fear of our forwards, they’re as good as what’s in the country at this age-group.”
Young as he is, Patrick already shows signs of great maturity. Not surprising really considering this is his fourth year on the U21 panel – he actually came on as a sub in the 2009 All-Ireland final win, as did Conor McGrath. An early and successful promotion to U21 then, an early and successful subsequent promotion to senior ranks, this being his second season.
No success at either level since that heady season, however, but Patrick is prepared to bide his time.
“It would have been foolish for anyone to think a Munster title was just going to come along the year after. It takes time,” he said.
“Look at the Kilkenny lads, the core of that team is 26-28, all big physical men now. It will take time for our team to mature physically, maybe work on skill a lot more as well. I was actually on Seamus Prendergast for a while this year in the Waterford match and I remember thinking ‘this is a different kettle of fish here!’
“Teams are so well trained to tackle now, and dispossess, you have to find a man in a better position as fast as possible and that takes work on both your foot speed and your speed of striking. But I think after this year we’re really moving in the right direction and hopefully, on the back of this U21 campaign there might be a few more brought in, to keep lads on their toes.”
Expectation. It can make some, break some. With Patrick O’Connor, the impression leans very definitely towards the former.
CLARE: R Taaffe; P Flanagan, D McInerney, K Ryan; S Morey, C Ryan, P O’Connor; C Galvin, S Golden; T Kelly, P Collins, A Cunningham; C O’Connell, C McGrath, C McInerney.
ANTRIM: J O’Mullan; R McCloskey, R Gillan, C Morgan; J Black, M Donnelly, J McCouaig; A McKeown, S McAfee; M Devlin, S Dobbin, K McKiernan; N Elliot, C McCann, D McCloskey.
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