Enjoyment. Fulfilment. Freedom of expression.
Words that should be the cornerstones of sport, they are rarely uttered when it comes to modern inter-county football.
Not amongst the players anyway. Or so we are led to believe, in an era when endless training sessions and defensive tactics proliferate.
There are exceptions.
Dean Rock spoke recently about how he has never played for a club or county side that adopted a safety-first defensive approach and Westmeath defender Jamie Gonoud has waxed lyrical about the tactical nuances and changes that have altered the game’s DNA.
Clare’s footballers are another side thumbing a collective nose at the dour and functional school of thought. They booked a place in an All-Ireland quarter-final last weekend with a sometimes thrilling display against Roscommon in Salthill.
Eoin Cleary was among those to profit.
The Milltown Malbay forward was called ashore to considerable applause four minutes into injury-time after a performance that delivered six points, four from play, and five wayward shots on goal from frees and play.
It was a display symbolic of Clare’s efforts: exceptional at times, less than exemplary at others. But Cleary’s afternoon demonstrated a willingness to keep going and trust in his abilities which has been instilled in the team by Colm Collins and Mick Bohan.
“Playing that first half, Mick and Colm spoke to us before the game and just said, ‘lads, we just want ye to play with the shackles off.’ It was like we were 10-year-olds going out there and playing a game,” said Cleary.
“Jamie Malone turned to me at one stage at half-time and he just said, ‘how enjoyable is this to play?’ I just smiled at him. Even though we missed some chances, it was such an enjoyable game of football for us to play.”
Clare hit 4-29 in their last two matches but it isn’t as if they have been shooting the lights out all year. There was a good rump of teams that landed more scores during the league and the Banner are joint seventh in the list of scorers among the 10 teams remaining in the championship. Yet they are clearly going places.
“When Mick came in this year, he just focused a lot on basics, basic skills. Colm, in fairness since he came in in 2014, has been unbelievable.
“From talking to the older boys they would say there has been some change to the way it was previously. So they work together. Every day we go to training, we keep focus and work on the basics: Left foot, right foot. He just worked on those core skills and we go out on the pitch and the plan works. It’s just about practising the basic skills, being comfortable on both feet and with your tackling.”
Doesn’t sound like rocket science. The mechanics of it all are undoubtedly more complicated but the fact is that Collins and Bohan have delivered a system of play that players have bought into. Clare are now winning games and having fun doing so.
Yet purity of principle is a much tougher task the higher up the ladder you go and the task for Clare now is to ally that adventurousness with a defensive structure that can ensure Kerry don’t hit them for anything like the 2-23 they recorded when the sides met in the Munster semi-final. Cleary takes that point.
“You don’t want to change it too much because you do have to play to your strengths and that is what we have to do from now on. You can’t beat momentum either. People talk about tiredness and playing three weeks in a row but momentum is brilliant. It carries you through games.”
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