There should be no shortage of native passion as Clare take on Limerick in the opening round of the Munster Senior Football Championship this evening.
Both managers, coming from dyed in the wool county backgrounds, will have drummed the sense of a championship identity into their teams better than any outside boss could.
Nothing like a bit of from-the-heart motivation to get the blood coursing and the fact that two neighbouring counties are clashing should also add to the sense of occasion in Cusack Park, Ennis.
Just before Clare embarked on their league campaign in Division 3 this year, I spoke with Clare midfielder Gary Brennan and asked him what his side’s ambitions for the year were. Brennan is a man of huge integrity both on and off the field and his reply was that Clare wished to get the better of Wexford that weekend, take it from there and hope that they might be in with a chance of promotion by early April.
Oddly enough, for a man whose team railed against the seeding arrangement that saw Clare and three other counties effectively excluded from the Munster final, Brennan didn’t mention winning the Munster championship 2015 as one of his targets.
Save for the glorious summer of 1992, when some of the players on show this evening weren’t even born, Kerry and Cork’s dominance in the province has been almost absolute and has sucked the sense of possibility out of this time of year for many who follow and who play Munster football.
Yet if the likes of Gary Brennan were to look around for encouragement, he could do a lot worse than take a lesson from a former adversary, Limerick’s John Galvin.
In a revealing interview with Kieran Shannon in this paper at the start of the year, the recently retired Galvin said that as far back as he could remember, “there wasn’t a year that I thought we didn’t have a good shot at winning the Munster title that upcoming season”. “Every year I believed this could be the year, that we had the players to do it. That’s what drove me. I’m shocked that we didn’t win one.” What has happened in recent years that such levels of defiance and daring have all but disappeared from the non traditional football counties? What needs to happen that would make once-in-a-lifetime results such as Clare’s win in 1992 more of a once-in-a-generation thing?
Are Tipperary really the only Munster county capable of a sustained run in this year’s championship? And what can we realistically expect of these two teams this evening?
Based on what we can extrapolate from league form, which can be quite unreliable the further down the league divisions you go, Clare have carried over their unwanted habit from last year’s championship of going great big patches of games without scoring.
We assumed when it happened in their championship exit against Kildare last year that it may have been an aberration. Ahead by double scores, 0-12 to 0-6 after 45 minutes, Clare were kept scoreless during the remaining 25 minutes of play, yielding seven unanswered points in a heartbreaking home defeat.
That alone should have been a good starting point for their development as a team this year but the issue of barren periods reared its head again in round 6 of the National League at the end of March. The venue was Newcastle West, the opposition, this evening’s opponent, Limerick. In a game where Clare never really showed up, Limerick ran out eight-point winners after the sides were level at 1-5 each early in the second half.
Even in their very next game, a game they needed to win in order to ensure survival in Division 3, Clare led 1-14 to 1-5 with just six minutes on the clock and yet contrived to allow Fermanagh score 1-4 without reply leaving them very nervous indeed coming down the home stretch. At times like that, all it takes is somebody to grab a hold of the game, win a free or create a score form a half- chance to keep the team ticking over. The fact that it’s not happening is quite revealing and I’m sure it is something the Clare management have been trying to address in the weeks since the end of the league.
In this context, the timing of the injuries to David Tubridy and Shane McGrath couldn’t have been worse. From midfield up, Clare look like they have huge industry but there doesn’t appear to be a commensurate scoring threat in the absence of their two marksmen in chief.
For all his obvious qualities, Podge Collins doesn’t offer a genuine target for first time ball and if he goes wandering all over the pitch, he is likely to tempt one of the backs to follow him upfield, just as Kerry’s Paul Murphy did to good effect last season.
Veteran Limerick full-back, Johnny McCarthy is unlikely to be asked to do this job but I’m sure corner back Robert Browne would relish following Podge around and wouldn’t be shy in having a few pops at goal, given Browne’s six points (0-3 from frees) for Fr Casey’s in the recent Limerick county championship game against Adare.
Hurler in exile, Davy O’ Halloran showed enough in the challenge game against Dublin in Milltown Malbay last weekend to suggest he will have a big say this evening too and if Clare are to advance to take on Cork, it may well be strength in depth off the bench that will swing it for them.
O’Halloran, Rory Donnelly and exciting youngster Keelan Sexton all offer that bit extra when needed and provided Kevin Harnett can keep tabs on Ian Ryan at the back and that Gary Brennan can dictate the pace of the game from the off, I expect Clare to be able to force Limerick into making enough of the handling errors we usually associate with Division 3 teams trying to make the transition from league to championship football in May.
It should be enough to earn them a crack at Cork.
Clare and Limerick will hope to show they are more than just bit players in this year’s Munster SFC but there remains plenty to prove for both counties
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