This Saturday and Sunday will, arguably, be the biggest weekend in the history of Clare soccer, as both the county youths and junior sides seek to qualify for the national finals of their respective competitions.
The Colm Ryan-managed youths team travels to play Cork on Saturday (kick-off at 3pm) while, 22 hours later, the juniors, managed by Donie Garrihy, will entertain Donegal in the Oscar Traynor semi-final (kick-off at 1pm) at the County Grounds in Doora.
While the juniors have been knocking on the door of Oscar Traynor success in recent years, it’s been quite a while since the youths were involved at this stage of the competition. Indeed, Clare struggled to put a team together at this level on occasions in the past decade.
A storming second-half performance saw the youths record a comfortable 5-2 win over Waterford in the quarter-final two weeks ago.
In that tie, the combination of Kieran Mahoney, Aidan Kennedy and Adam Gilbert caused massive problems for Waterford. Gilbert scored a hat-trick, while Mahoney scored the other two, with Kennedy creating numerous opportunities for the Clare side.
A repeat of that dominance should give Clare a huge chance of progressing to the final but the Banner side are not underestimating the challenge they are facing. Cork have started well in all of their games on the way to this stage of the competition.
“They have a massive pick and a very successful academy down there and we certainly don’t have the same numbers at that level.
“They have a number of Irish internationals but so had Waterford and we got past them,” said Clare manager, Colm Ryan.
It is expected that the Clare team will be along the lines of that which beat Waterford last time out. “Thankfully, we dont have any injury worries at this stage so, hopefully, all will be available for the trip to Cork,” Ryan added.
Clare fans will be looking to James Tierney (goalkeeper), Michael Junaid, Nzube Okoye, Pat McDaid and the aforementioned trio of Gilbert, Mahoney and Kennedy. With home advantage, Cork carry the favourites tag and it will take a huge performance on Clare’s part to cause an upset.
The Clare juniors face an equally difficult test against a fancied Donegal side. The team for Sunday’s game will not be finalised until later this week but definitely out is Conor Mullen, who played at full-back in the group stage but picked up a knee injuiry against Limerick and hasn’t got any game time since.
“Alan Kelly didn’t play for Newmarket on Sunday, due to injury. His chances of playing this week are no more than 50-50,” said team boss, Donie Garrihy.
On the credit side, team captain, Pat Purcell is available again, following suspension, while Stephen Kelly will also be available, having missed Newmarket’s Munster Champions Cup final last week, due to work commitments.
Among those pushing hard for a place on the team on Sunday are Newmarket’s Eoin O’Brien, who has rejoined the panel following a spell with the Clare hurlers, and Joe Collins from Ennis Town, scorer of a hat-trick at the weekend in the Premier League. He has been in impressive form with UL in the Collingwood Cup.
Garrihy said about Donegal, “They have Finn Harps in the League of Ireland, Letterkenny are into the Intermediate Cup semi-final, while they have two leagues, both of which are in the semi-finals of the Oscar Traynor Cup.
“Inisowen are the Oscar Traynor title-holders. Donegal have international players at adult and underage level – that’s how strong the game is in Donegal.”
He continued, “When Inisowen beat them two years ago, they set out a two-year plan to win the title in two years and here they are. They would love to win this one and take the title that Inisowen have held for the past year.
“At this stage of the competition, there is nothing between the teams (Iniwowen play the Leinster Senior League in the other semi-final). Denis Hynes and myself have seen the other three teams that are still in contention,” the Clare boss added.
Garrihy and his backroom team, which also includes David Russell (Avenue United), will not finalise Sunday’s team until later this week.
There will be a good sprinkling of players from Newmarket Celtic, who have eight in the squad, including team captain, Pat Purcell.
Barry Ryan, who plays for Tulla United, is likely to fill the goalkeeping position, with Darren Whelan and Yarek Mamala also contending for this position.
Clare’s only success in this competition came back in 2004 and Daryl Eade is a survivor from that victorious outfit.
Sunday’s game is set for 1pm, a decision which has been welcomed by the Clare manager, “as it allows sports fans to come and support Clare and then get to Cusack Park for the big hurling game”.
Clare may be the underdogs for both games at the weekend but they have shown impressive form all season in getting to the last four in their respective competitions.
It will take a big effort on the part of both Cork and Donegal to put them out.
By Seamus Hayes, sports editor