It’s taken time for the recent exploits of Clare’s footballers to migrate beyond the county’s traditional heartlands but Odran O’Dwyer knew Colm Collins’ team was on to something when hurling folk began to mention them on their visits to his performance therapy clinic in Ennis.
“It’s a good sign when you hear hurling people talking about it,” he says. The incidence upped with the defeat of Laois and has spiked this week ahead of the appointment with Roscommon.
O’Dwyer will be in Sathill today with his kids and a good many more from the Banner as the county seeks to extend a season that has already delivered promotion to Division Two, a first berth in the last 12 of the All-Ireland series since the qualifiers were introduced and some unfamiliar levels of attention.
An All-Ireland quarter-final place awaits if they can inflict further heartache on a Roscommon side nursing the wounds of their heavy Connacht final replay defeat to Galway six days ago.
These are heady times. Historic times.
O’Dwyer was little over a year away from his senior debut when Clare won Munster and played an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park in 1992. And the Kilmurray-Ibrickane clubman ultimately featured on a Clare team whose peak had the misfortune of falling below their ultimate goals.
People forget now but the Banner was a Division One team for the bones of a decade. They ran Kerry close in the provincial decider when the Kingdom won that redemptive All-Ireland in 1997, Clare having already seen to Cork, and they fell inches short of the Rebels the year before.
“We had a good team with good players,” O’Dwyer recalls. “If we had a run in the qualifiers back then we could have done so much.”
The current crop has certainly benefited from the expanded format.
Poor in their Munster opener against Limerick, they never threatened Kerry in the semi-final. Qualifiers against Laois and Sligo, counties inhabiting the same mid-tier rung of the game’s ladder, have allowed them to progress despite long spells of less than exemplary football.
“The draw has definitely been kind and, of all the teams in the draw, Roscommon will have had their heads down after that bad defeat last weekend,” O’Dwyer believes. “They’ll show their character the next day, let’s say that. I wouldn’t say Clare are punching above their weight but they are beating the teams around them and that’s a change from a few years ago when they were rated maybe the second worst team in the country. What Colm Collins has them doing now is closing games out that they would have lost in previous years. You get that by playing to a system. It’s not like Kildare a few years ago in the qualifiers when they were something like nine points up and they lost.”
It’s a good point, and one Limerick manager John Brudair made before the county’s meeting at the end of May. Clare were four points down on Laois after 51 minutes and won. And they outscored Sligo 1-13 to 0-4 in the second-half. That’s clutch football.
Another of Brudair’s observations is worth mentioning here, too: the consistency of team selection. Brudair noticed that Collins leaned on no more than 21 core players throughout the league and that has continued into the championship.
Just 23 players have been used in their four outings. Eleven have started them all. Collins has tweaked his side throughout the summer but it is the same faces rotating on or off a bench that has made vital contributions.
Pearse Lillis, who has started the last two games, kicked three points from play on his introduction against Kerry. Keelan Sexton, who dropped to the bench against Sligo, came on to add another hat-trick of scores from the list of replacements.
Add in Seanie Maher kicking a crucial 67th-minute point against Laois and the cameo contributions that day of Podge Collins and Shane McGrath and it makes for an effective cavalry, even if O’Dwyer is right in pointing out that Clare can’t make eight or nine changes like a Cork or Kerry.
There is a theory that this is a game that could see two sides play with more than a modicum of adventure and freedom. It would suit a Clare side that has averaged 17.5 points this summer with 17 posted against Kerry and 2-17 totalled the last day against Sligo.
Whatever the nature of the game today, it marks a significant step up in class for a Clare side that has beaten a team that will be playing Division Four football next season, one they have left behind them in Division Three and another that was evicted from Division Two.
Win today and more than their hurling brethren will be talking.
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