UNLESS Clare beat Armagh in Ennis on Sunday, their hopes of having a crack at promotion will splinter beyond rescue. Conversely, a Clare win would be a massive morale boost, backed up by the points that would leave them in a great position, with games away to Limerick and at home to Fermanagh to come.
Armagh are top of Division 3, with three wins and a draw. The latter result was at home to Fermanagh last Saturday night, when Kieran McGeeney’s team allowed an eight-point second-half lead to evaporate.
Following Clare’s six-point loss to Tipperary, management will have a few decisions to make regarding who to start. Only about six of the starting 15 played anywhere near the required level. Those who did included Cathal O’Connor, Shane McGrath, Martin McMahon, Podge Collins, Ciaran Russell and Dean Ryan. That leaves huge scope for improvement, which will be the minimum demand on Sunday. Management will have to decide whether to give the same 15 a chance to redeem themselves or perhaps to make some personnel changes.
Clare could also opt to go with largely the same team but to adopt a new tactical approach. For example, Shane Hickey could be deployed as an extra defender, with Podge Collins operating at centre-forward. Confidence wise, Clare need to start well and give themselves a platform as the game develops. With this in mind, it might be a reasonable option to sit a bit deeper and try to play Armagh on the break. That policy might tempt some of Armagh’s half-backs to play a bit higher up the field, leaving them chasing backwards if Clare turn them over and break out at pace and with numbers.
However, they can come up with the greatest tactical approach ever heard of but if the players don’t work much harder, tackle a lot more and cease giving away scoreable frees, tactics won’t be a factor.
Personnel wise, Clare could look at shaking up the half-forward line, which was ineffective against Tipperary, aside from Shane McGrath’s four points return from play. Shane Brennan could offer a ball-winning option in either that line or as an inside forward playing outfield, on the understanding that he also puts the tackles in and is an option on kick-outs.
With David Tubridy ruled out with a groin injury, Clare will be forced to make a change in the full-forward line.
Seán Collins was one of Clare’s most consistent players in 2014 but that form seems to have deserted the Cratloe man, who never lacks effort or commitment but needs an injection of confidence. David Tubridy and Pat Burke also found themselves on the periphery against Tipperary and need a good start against Armagh.
Management might decide to go with Martin O’Leary or Cathal McInerney in the hope that they might spark the Clare attack. They also have the option of going with Jamie Malone as a centre or an inside forward, where he has played plenty of underage football for Clare. Malone could offer a physical dimension to the Clare attack, while he is also well able to find the net. There are plenty of players, including Seán Haugh, Stephen Collins, Chris Dunning or Shane Hickey, who could slot in at wing-back.
There is a fine line between making a couple of changes and panic. Yet the reality is that Clare have not turned in a 70-minute performance since their opening win over Wexford in Miltown Malbay. Leaving a player out doesn’t mean that’s it for him. In fact, it might help a player to rediscover his form. A sub coming into a game that has opened up, with 20 minutes left, could do just that.
Up to now, Clare have had little impact from the bench in scoring terms. They have made 20 substitutions in their four games to date and the only substitute to score from play is Shane Brennan, who goaled against Tipperary. That is a statistic that underlines that Clare need a lot more from the bench in the last 20 minutes. So while no player ever wants to start in the dugout, Clare need to think about the need for impact substitutes, who can notch a score or two at a time when the game could be there to be won.
In 2014, this panel showed, against Kerry and Kildare, that they can compete with top-tier teams. If they can do that in championship, they can do it on Sunday. Armagh will come to Ennis seething from throwing away a home win against Fermanagh. They have a number of quality players, including full-back, Charlie Vernon; midfielder, Peter Carragher; forwards, Jamie Clarke, Micheál McKenna and Ethan Rafferty.
Armagh tend to favour the short kick-out, which hopefully Clare can offset by pinning them back or forcing them long. Clare have their own kick-out issues to resolve. Tipperary allowed Clare to take short kick-outs but moved in on the Clare receiver as the ball was in flight, putting the pressure on and occasionally forcing turnovers.
In essence, Clare need a wholehearted, gun-to-tape performance on Sunday. Produce that and they will have a chance of rattling Armagh.
Sunday’s NFL Round 5 game will throw in at 2pm in Cusack Park. The other Division 3 fixtures on Sunday are Louth v Tipperary; Fermanagh v Limerick and Sligo v Wexford.
By Peter O’Connell