AS they head for Tullamore on Sunday, Clare’s priority will be to produce a second 70-minute performance once the clock hits 2pm. If they can reproduce and sustain the level on view against Westmeath, the result will look after itself.
However, it must be expected that Offaly will test Clare’s resolve far more than Westmeath did. The Lake County were very poor and aside from a few minutes late in the first half, they didn’t take the game and simply folded late in the second half.
Offaly are just two points behind Clare in the league table and a win on Sunday would almost guarantee their Division 3 status for 2016 and put them in with an outside chance of promotion.
Offaly lost to Tipperary last weekend, having beaten Sligo 1-13 to 0-14 in their previous fixture. They will look to players such as Michael Brazil, Niall Smith, Niall Bracken and Niall McNamee on Sunday to steer them to what would be a huge win.
However, Clare are playing with discernible confidence and have lost just twice this year. They were beaten by Cork in the McGrath Cup final and lost to Tipperary in their second league game. Those games aside, they have scored impressive and mostly comfortable league wins over Sligo, Limerick and Westmeath.
Sunday’s game and subsequent fixtures are more important that championship games, in that Clare have a realistic chance of winning promotion to Division 2. They do not have a realistic chance of winning the 2016 Munster championship but playing Division 2 league football in 2017 would surely improve Clare’s chances of delivering big championship performances in the seasons ahead.
Clare are playing in a very united manner and are not as reliant on individuals as they were in previous seasons. Their half-back line of Jamie Malone, Gordon Kelly and Cian O’Dea are giving them a very stable platform, behind Gary Brennan and Cathal O’Connor. Half-forwards Seán Collins and Pearse Lillis are dropping back intelligently when Clare are under pressure but, crucially, are capable of breaking forward at pace.
All of this leaves room and time for key forwards Eoin Cleary and David Tubridy to kick scores from play and frees. Of course, Offaly manager Pat Flanagan will be aware of Clare’s strong points and they are likely to set up with that in mind. Offaly will not fear Clare and, in fact, will surely see this game as an opportunity to mount a promotion bid of their own.
However, Clare seem to be playing with clear intent and are now able to intelligently execute their game plan. They should pick up another invaluable win in Tullamore, which will keep them in with a great chance of playing Division 2 football in 2017.
By Peter O’Connell