Colm Collins and Ephie Fitzgerald are putting shape and purpose on Clare’s football ambitions. An interesting test awaits tonight.
The GAA’s cash-counters only pull on their sleeve garters for potential haymakers like tomorrow’s championship hurling clash of Clare and Limerick.
Hence no-one in the society of chartered accountants is exercised at the prospect of tonight’s football equivalent in the Munster championship in Ennis. But Munster football anoraks are. Like nodding sagely when one of those independent theatre plays explodes onto Broadway, saying I saw it before anyone else did, when it was nothing.
Clare football is long past nothing, but it’s not the something Tipperary has become, much less Cork or even Kerry. But it’s getting there, and it’s probably a nudge ahead of Limerick.
How far, if at all, is subject to championship interrogation this evening, with the victors heading to a semi-final with Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn.
As the independent arbiter of where Clare are and can aspire to, coach Ephie Fitzgerald has a greater range of reference points than most. It’s not just his four All-Ireland clubs as a player with Nemo Rangers, or his five Cork and Munster senior titles. At 53, he has accumulated a range of valuable coaching experiences too — from Limerick to the Cork minors, from Nemo to Ballylanders, where he assisted in annexing the Limerick football title last year.
He’s not hung up at this stage about why he hasn’t been offered the big gig in Cork football, though it’s a moot point. His engaging enthusiasm suggests he’s coaching for the right reasons: because he still gets a buzz out of it.
“I’d be finished work (at Youthreach) in Mahon in Cork before 4pm and I’d sit into the car and head out the tunnel for Clare three days a week.
“The journey doesn’t bother me because I love what I do. I was with Ballylanders last year — and still give them a hand when I can — but compared to travelling to Clare, that’s like going as far as the local shop.
“My coaching has always been basics — catching, kicking, fielding, blocking. The basics remain work-rate and having a sound work ethic, whether it’s sport or employment. We are very lucky we have a group very willing to work, listen and learn.
“The likes of David Tubridy (who misses tonight’s clash), Gary Brennan, Podge Collins would grace any team, there’s a core who are very good, and some younger guys starting off. It’s a huge step from Clare club level to inter-county, and Limerick would be similar. The club standard in Cork and Kerry would be that bit higher, I would suggest.
“Tipperary are probably a step ahead of us in terms of their underage success, they have some fabulous players. I had experience of them with the Cork minors in 2012 and 2013, they beat us both years and they beat Cork’s Under 21s in the Munster final this year, so they’re on the rise.”
Fitzgerald knows the incline is steep, but the steps have to be small by necessity. Consolidation this year in League Division 3 was important after too many seasons in Division 4. A Munster semi tilt at Cork is a seductive prospect and benchmark.
“You can’t be setting any goals beyond Limerick but I know by the time I leave, we’d like to be looking at Munster finals. The players don’t fear anybody. It’s all about performance, and if they are ready mentally, they’ll be a match for anyone.”
This is Fitzgerald’s first full season with the Banner alongside manager Colm Collins, without whom there’s no foundation to progress from.
“He’s a fantastic manager in terms of his organisational skills and in terms of putting stuff in place for the players, it’s as good as anything I’ve seen.
“The training regime is top class, a great fitness coach in Chris DeLuce, and Colm has professionalised the set-up from bottom to top. Within reason, anything the lads want, they get, and that’s reflected in their attitude to games.
“When you come from one of the weaker counties, you are behind the eight-ball in terms of confidence and belief, so you have to start with proper preparation.”
Whether Clare book a June 14 date with Cork or not, they’ll get a run through the qualifiers. Meeting his own county along the way would neither be awkward or daunting.
“Nah, it’s a job,” he shrugs, “I didn’t get the Cork one, so you go with the next best thing! You could see Cork worked and trained hard during the league, but the Dublin game was a big setback, obviously. But the idea that they just gave up is inaccurate.
“The likes of (Joe) Brolly should know better. That really annoyed me. Cork are Cork and you just don’t know with them. They have some very good players, (but) I would prefer them to be a little more offensive than defensive, generally speaking.”
As a football man raised with a Nemo culture of “we never lose, we just run out of time”, Fitzgerald isn’t fearing the demise of the game and is confident anyone travelling to Cusack Park tonight will see two sides keen to play with the ball.
“There’s a lot of hype about defensive systems. Look at Kerry last year, they were able to play a number of games differently. The real defensive teams are Monaghan and Donegal, and some are trying to copy that, but those two have it down to a tee. There were a few games in the league that weren’t very attractive, but I wouldn’t be going down the road of changing the rules. If Dublin and Kerry keep winning All- Irelands, they’re not doing it by playing blanket defence.
“It’s about football, but you can’t be stupid either. You have to understand your limitations and we know if we go gung-ho, we’re not good enough, so you’ll always overload a bit at the back.
“There’s only one team can win an All-Ireland, and in hurling or football, only five or six are really competitive in terms of ultimate success. So it’s never about winning but doing the best that you can do, or being the best that you can be. That’s what we always said in Nemo, go out and be the best that you can be.
“No excuses. We used call them ‘imposters’ — the referee, the venue, the crowd, the weather. I would say get the maximum out of everyone, including yourself. There’s an awful lot of over-the-top criticism for amateur players, they give great value.
“Managers get far too much credit for winning, and far too much criticism for losing. We’d had 40 fellas involved all told with the Clare set-up, and everyone has some sort of responsibility.
“You sink or swim together.”
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