Last Saturday evening when Gary Brennan stood on the steps of the Hogan Stand, it served as a reminder of another fact of the county he represents so well.
Twenty-one years earlier from the same spot, Anthony Daly gave one of the most celebrated speeches in GAA history, encapsulating the passion and craving of a people. It wasn’t a line Daly could quite have worked into his speech that day, nor would it have been appropriate for Brennan to reference in any way Daly’s address, given this was still ultimately only a Division Three league final. But the genuine delight and pride that was palpable in Croke Park on Saturday underlined that in Clare they not only love their hurling and their traditional music, but in large pockets of it, they love their football as well.
This quiet, incremental, but undoubted progress they’ve been making can be attributed to the appointment of a man who embodies that love of a game and a county. Colm Collins has been one of the lowest profile managers Clare have had this past 25 years. After the messianic effect that John Maughan had, the county continuously turned to big-name, Celtic-Cross-jangling appointees to work a similar kind of miracle, not least because the Mayo man’s immediate successor, John O’Keeffe, did such a manful job of retaining the county’s standing as a top-12 team. But it didn’t work for or with John Kennedy, and more spectacularly, Páidí and even Micko.
In Collins they found someone who personifies the soul of Clare football; born and reared in the football hotbed that is Kilmihil, then spreading the gospel in new territory in Cratloe. For Collins, the Clare gig was no stepping stone or stepdown or consolation prize. It was the ultimate, though now he’ll invariably be linked to future vacancies within a two-hour orbit of his Cratloe base.
For seven years Clare had been vying to get out of Division Four, only to regularly fall at the last hurdle. Collins changed the narrative: ‘Lads, let’s try and get back to being a top-16 county like we were in the ’90s’. By reaching for the stars they hit the moon in his first season — and they’re within reach of the stars now.
What this team now needs is a championship moment. Munster, you’d have to think, is still too far a stretch to provide something a la ’92 or ’97 and Martin Daly’s famous goal. Even a certain qualifier, a second-round game against the loser of the probable Monaghan-Donegal showdown, would still likely be beyond them. But to beat a now fellow Division Two county, say a Meath, or even better, a neighbouring Galway, would be the kind of scalp they’d relish as well as need.
In Gary Brennan they have the most complete footballer operating outside the top six counties and someone who would grace any of that six. But there’s so much more to them than him. The achievement of Collins has been to rejuvenate veterans like David Tubridy and bring through bold, brave talents like Pearse Lillis and Killian Sexton. The recruitment of Shane McGrath and Pat Burke and the Clare diaspora in Dublin was as much in the romantic spirit of Mary Robinson as the hard-nosed pragmatism of Jack Charlton. More, he’s made some inspired backroom appointments. In the autumn of 2013 he snapped up Paudie Kissane before the Clyda man had even officially retired or been retired with Cork.
Kissane would only stay one season with Clare but was pivotal to the Collins project in helping win promotion from Division Four. This autumn Collins looked not to the obvious and traditional posts of Cork and Kerry for a coach, but to Dublin, a measure not just of the current power base of Gaelic football, but his lateral thinking.
He identified Mick Bohan as another member of the Clare diaspora and someone whose skills work with the likes of Paddy Andrews and exposure to the Jim Gavin regime was just what Clare needed.
Bohan’s work on the training ground was evident last Saturday night. This wasn’t a Clare team trying to squeeze out a win along the lines of 1-14 to 1-12. They were happy to engage in a shootout. In doing so they put up a score of 2-17, in keeping with tallies like the 1-20 they racked up against Longford last month.
They’re not going to get too far ahead of themselves, though. Even before Saturday’s game, Collins was telling the local press that May 29 against Limerick was the date foremost in his mind. It wasn’t to give his players a safety net in case they lost to Kildare, more to keep them grounded when they’d win.
Most inter-county managers these days are white-collar workers. Collins was a teacher for a few years, but for the last 20 has been installing as well as supplying hardwood flooring. Even now the voice greeting on his phone is “Eh, this is Colm from Acorn Hardware Floors”. No hint that he’s the county manager. No hint of pretension.
And no better man to keep his players grounded, yet improving and dreaming.
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