WINNING a championship game should never be derided, yet a worrying trend is developing as far as the Clare footballers are concerned. Sunday’s three-point win over Limerick, who haven’t won a game for 14 months, was the fourth successive championship game in which Clare failed to play anywhere close to their optimum level.
Last year, they beat Limerick by two points in Cusack Park, before losing to Cork (1-20 to 1-8) in Pairc Uí Rinn in the Munster semi-final. They exited the All-Ireland qualifiers in their next game, losing 2-12 to 1-12 at home to Longford on July 4.
In contrast, they played some excellent championship football in 2014, albeit losing to eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry in Ennis and to Kildare in the All-Ireland qualifiers. However, Clare did play five championship games that year, including a draw against Waterford, before winning the replay in Dungarvan. Their second championship win that year was away to Carlow in Dr Cullen Park.
Based on very clear league evidence, the current Clare panel are well ahead of where they were in 2014. Therefore, it’s not going overboard to suggest that they have yet to transfer their league consistency into the championship arena. More is expected of them because of their league consistency and the fact that they are now a Division 2 team. That’s not to infer that their third successive championship win over Limerick wasn’t an achievement. It was but Limerick have just seven of their 2013 championship team available to them this year. Had they players such as Ger Collins, Eoin Hanrahan, injured 2016 captain Iain Corbett or Robert Browne on the field, they would be a much more threatening opponent. Yet a significantly weakened team still probed and pushed Clare on Sunday, when nine first-half wides seriously cost Limerick.
Clare will head to Killarney on the weekend of June 11 for their Munster semi-final tie and, realistically, it would be a massive shock if Clare were to win it. However, a more reasonable aim should be a significantly improved championship display. Perhaps Clare will be able to open up a bit more in Killarney and play with a bit more freedom. There is no doubt that there was pressure on them against Limerick, who are now a Division 4 team. Winning the game was the absolute priority but the standard of football from both counties was poor. Both teams kicked aimless wides, regularly gave possession away, conceded lazy frees and didn’t offer enough in terms of effective support play. Had Clare won a high-quality game by three points, there wouldn’t have been such unease at their performance. The fact that they won a low-quality game by a narrow margin explains why Clare supporters and the panel of players were somewhat downcast afterwards.
Up to this stage of their development, league progress was more important for Clare than championship. That might seem like a heinous statement to most people who regard championship as sacrosanct. However, Division 4, and even most Division 3, counties generally go nowhere in championship. A top 16 league county can justifiably believe that they have sufficient quality and consistency to pull out at least one huge championship display annually.
Clare will have that opportunity, on a very big stage, against Kerry. Limerick made it difficult for them by withdrawing players and effectively closing down space through the middle. However, Clare kicked 0-14 from play and that is a good return in any championship arena. That return should not be discounted and they did spurn a couple of decent goal chances. Yet there is no point in suggesting that this display was good enough from Clare. They have two weeks to lift their game considerably and simply show much more energy, ambition and belief in themselves.
They are a very capable group of players but to really cut it, they need to take on Kerry all over Fitzgerald Stadium. If they do that, the result will accurately represent that performance. Winning the next day isn’t an absolute necessity in terms of this panel’s long-term development but a radical improvement performance-wise is. Expect a much more fired-up Clare team to bounce of Kerry in Killarney the weekend after next.
By Peter O’Connell