THE Clare footballers will play their first competitive match of the new season when they meet Waterford in Meelick at 2pm on Sunday in the McGrath Cup.
Next Wednesday, Clare will play Limerick at 7.30pm in the Gaelic Grounds in their final game in the three-team group. The group winners will play Kerry, Cork or Tipperary in the final on January 22.
On Sunday, Clare will be without their Ballyea players, who are preparing for their All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship semi-final, against St Thomas’ from Galway, on Saturday, February 4. The county footballers will play Derry away the following day in their opening Division 2 league fixture.
Clare manager Colm Collins said they will use the McGrath Cup to give a game to as many players as possible. He also noted that the two upcoming games are more useful than challenge matches.
“There is no question, they are way better than challenge games. Anything that’s organised properly and officiated at is massive. We have our two games down on top of each other but that’s just the way it is and we just get on with it. If we qualify, we qualify. It’s not an end in itself and our big focus will be on February 5 in Derry. That’s where all our focus is,” stressed Collins, who is starting his fourth year as senior manager.
“In the 2016 McGrath Cup, we ended up giving almost 30 players a run. That will be the focus this year again, looking at plenty of people and seeing how they get on,” Collins added.
Promoted twice during his time as manager, Clare also reached the All-Ireland quarter-final last year, winning four championship games. However, Collins is adamant that everyone involved will have to up their 2016 input.
“If you stand still, you’re going backwards. The constant focus has been on improvement and again this year that will be the same way. If we remain where we were last year, we’ll go backwards. From a management point of view, we’ve also got to be more efficient and look at ways we can improve ourselves and do things better than we did last year. It’s not just players I’m talking about. Up to now, things have been good. The younger players have integrated really well and they’re doing well,” the Clare manager said of their pre-season training.
Meanwhile, Collins said that there was no issue managing the training load of the Ballyea club hurlers who are on the county football panel.
“We respect the tremendous opportunity that Ballyea have and we’ve been getting a really good commitment from the players, mindful of the fact that they have to divide their time between the two. But we don’t have any complaints and we fully support the players in their quest to get to an All-Ireland final and we’re happy with what they have been giving us, given the circumstances,” Collins said.
Enda Coughlan and Pat Burke, who were panel members in 2016, have retired, while Podge Collins has opted for hurling.
Ciarán Russell (Éire Óg), Shane Brennan (Clondegad), John Looney (Cooraclare) and John Hayes (Kilrush) have been added to the panel. Russell was a regular starter in 2015, having joined the panel in 2014 before spending much of 2016 in the US, while Shane Brennan was also a regular starter but he was not involved last year.
Two other Kilrush players, Gearóid O’Brien and Darragh Bolton, have joined the provisional panel, along with the returning Podge McMahon (Clondegad), while Mikey O’Neill (Kilmaley), Kieran Malone (Miltown) and David Egan (Kilmihil) have also come in.
By Peter O’Connell