Clare SFC Round One Preview
St Joseph’s Miltown v Kilmihil
It is a sign of far each club has risen that this senior championship opening round is a repeat of the 2013 intermediate final. On that day, Miltown were comfortable winners and their curve has been on the upward trajectory ever since. 2015 and 2018 saw them crowned champions with the core of that team being with them throughout that journey. They have also got the man who led them to that intermediate title back in their corner as David O’Brien takes up the reins once more. Kilmihil eventually got over the line after consistently contesting for intermediate honours, and built on that last year by consolidating their senior status. Club legend Mark O’Connell is the man on the line and along with former international rules star Odran O’Dwyer they will have Kilmihil well primed for this test.
It has already been a successful year for Miltown as they ended a 7 year wait for the Cusack Cup with a one point win over Clondegad in the decider. While the weather on the day did not exactly lend itself to free-flowing football, the manner in which Miltown ground out the victory will leave them in good stead for another tilt at the county title. Defensive leaders like Sean O’Brien, Enda O’Gorman, Eoin O’Brien and Gordon Kelly will mean that no scores will be conceded without a struggle, while Conor Cleary will be a key player in the midfield area. That is a sector in which the champions have an abundance of options with the young guns of Darragh McDonagh and Oisin Looney also pushing for a starting place. Former captain Gearoid Curtin is also a key middle third operator and found himself on the right-wing in the Cusack Cup final where he had a real impact. Up front, Eoin Cleary and Graham Kelly form a strong spine while Cormac Murray and Kieran Malone will ensure that opposition defences need to be switched on at all times.
Kilmihil had something of a mixed Garry Cup campaign but the form of Martin O’Leary will be something they are hoping will carry forward to the championship. The former county man is key to the challenge they will bring but with such a balanced Miltown defence working against him, he will need support from the likes of David Egan, Ciaran Downes and David Lernihan. The middle third will be a key battleground and the experienced David Ryan will need to at least break even in terms of winning possession if Kilmihil are to have any launchpad to their inside line.
With Miltown likely to top the group, the race for the second qualification spot from the group will be key and scoring difference could well come into play. This is a great opportunity for Kilmihil to test where they are ahead of showdowns with Kilrush and Naomh Eoin-O’Curry’s, but all known form points to the champions picking up the points here.
Verdict: St Joseph’s Miltown
Kilrush Shamrocks v Naomh Eoin-O’Curry’s
This is a west Clare derby that is sure to generate huge interest and attract a large crowd to Kilkee as the peninsula joins forces for an assault on the Clare senior football championship. It is an exciting departure as the two clubs come together but as with every new venture, there is a real element of the unknown. That is compounded by the fact that both are still involved in their own right in the intermediate championship, and this weekend sees O’Curry’s take on their closest rivals Kilkee in the opening round.
It is a big demand on players to go week on week for championship games, but facing into two in the space of 24 hours is a mammoth one. That is magnified by the fact that the local derby element for O’Curry’s will be critical against Kilkee and with plenty hits going in, the question has to be asked as to how players will react to having to face into arguably an even bigger test the following day at senior level. The Naomh Eoin contingent will have had a bye in the opening round but with the likes of Sean Haugh and Thomas Clancy being key men for the new group team, it is an obvious concern. With both teams also preparing for the intermediate championship, their time together under the watch of new manager Joe Garry has been limited in comparison with their senior counterparts and their togetherness will be tested in the heat of championship.
Kilrush warmed up for this tie with victory over Shannon Gaels in the Division Three final and looked to be a team in good shape ahead of the championship. Clare senior goalkeeper Stephen Ryan is plying his club trade at the other end of the field and was impressive in notching 1-3 from play. He will be ably assisted by fellow county man Gearoid O’Brien while captain Stephen Sweeney is also leading the line along with Liam Madigan. Matthew Moloney provides a steady hand in the centre-back position and with Darragh Bolton in good form at midfield, the Shams look like an outfit with real balance. They will be eager to make an impact on their return to the senior championship and with former Kerry ladies manager Graham Shine steering the ship, they look like a team ready for the task.
With so many unknowns for Naomh Eoin/O’Curry’s, it is a concern heading into the real litmus test. With so many questions to be answered, and with Kilrush showing good form in the lead up, the verdict has to lie with the Shams to get their first points on the board.
Verdict: Kilrush Shamrocks
Kilmurry Ibrickane v Lissycasey
These two sides have had contrasting fortunes in the last 12 months while both will be eager to effectively put on foot in the quarter-finals.
The Bricks hit the crossbar in their bid to reach a third successive championship final last year when falling to Ennistymon in their last four showdown, while a slow start to this year’s Cusack Cup saw their grip on the trophy finally come to an end after a run of seven straight victories. Lissycasey also hit the crossbar in 2018 but in a more positive sense when they avoided the dreaded drop with victory over St Breckan’s in the relegation final. They also had a slow start to the Cusack Cup campaign but paid the price when finishing in the bottom two saw them drop down to the Garry Cup for 2020.
There was something of a warm up for this tie in recent weeks as they played out a 1-9 to 1-9 draw in the O’Gorman Cup semi-final, with uncertainty still surrounding the future of that replay. That will be the furthest things from the minds this weekend though where two crucial championship points are on offer. With three teams in the group, it means whoever comes out on top here will be in a strong position to reach the last eight and that is the real prize on offer.
As with most championship ties, the middle third is going to be critical and the advantage may just lie with the Bricks in this regard. The return of Dermot Coughlan after his ankle injury is a major boost while Keelan Sexton could make his return after a summer in America. Keith King and Matt O’Shea will likely match up in what will be a psychical tussle, but is how Kilmurry utilise their younger brigade that could play a key role. The emergence of Adam O’Connor, Caoilfhionn O’Dea, Diarmuid King and Daniel Walsh during the Cusack Cup campaign meant they added freshness to the team to complement the more experienced campaigners. Martin McMahon continues to marshal the defence from the half-back line and he will need to be alert to keep tabs on the lively duo of Conor Finnucane and Niall Kelly who will carry the main scoring burden for Lissycasey.
On the basis of recent form, the favourites tag has to lie with Kilmurry. The Cusack Cup might be gone but with Aidan ‘Horse’ Moloney back again in the home stable, the 2017 champions will be well primed for a shot at regaining their county title. They should get that off on the right foot here.
Verdict: Kilmurry Ibrickane
Ennistymon v Doonbeg
The North Clare magpies return to the scene of their greatest and most disappointing day in equal measures when they take on their West Clare equivalent in Cusack Park.
2018 saw Mark Shanahan’s side just fall short in their bid for their maiden title in what was their first appearance behind the Tulla Pipe Band as Miltown emerged victorious. Ironically, the last time Doonbeg were in the county grounds was also county final day when Cratloe proved too strong back in 2013.
In gauging how this one plays out, it remains to be seen how Ennistymon will bounce back from the disappointment. The initial signs are positive in that stalwarts like Joe Dowling and Laurence Healy are still manning their posts and providing the leadership to the young guns. That bore out in the Cusack Cup where a home-semi final was secured but the manner of the defeat that day to Clondegad will be of concern. Doonbeg’s league form was also positive and they finished off the job with victory over Kildysart on a day when the class of David Tubridy shone through as they picked up the Garry Cup title.
Ennistymon’s defensive plan will have to include a way to stop the county star having that kind of influence and it might even require having an extra defender to sit in front of him. On the other hand, Doonbeg will be looking at how to stop Cillian Rouine’s impact on the game with the former minor captain demonstrating brilliant ball-carrying ability across the league campaign. The return of Colm Dillon to the fold is a positive for West Clare side, with Eoghan Tubridy and Shane Ryan also likely to cause problems for the Ennistymon back six. The North Clare men have plenty attacking options too with Ross O’Doherty, Joey Rouine and the evergreen Dowling more than capable of doing the damage on the scoreboard. Ennistymon’s defence will need to be disciplined in the tackle with Tubridy poised to punish any indiscretion in the scoring zone. Match-ups will be critical and it remains to be seen who Ennistymon detail to match-up with Tubridy. Similarly for Doonbeg, the marking job on Cillian Rouine will be a key one.
The venue for this one could be a defining factor. The expanses of Cusack Park might just suit a more youthful Ennistymon who have a team loaded with pace. Sean Rouine, Cian Shannon, Sean McConigley and Cillian Rouine will revel in the space and that could well nullify the more psychical element that the likes of Paraic Aherne and Colm Dillon will bring for Doonbeg. Ennistymon will look to run the channels and make the space for the inside line, and their return to Cusack Park should be a fruitful one.
Cratloe v Clondegad
The tie of the round comes from the group of the championship as two of the chief contenders for the title are pitted together. There’s something in common from 2018 for these sides as both fell to the eventual champions in the knockout stages. For Clondegad, their end came at the quarter-finals with Cratloe bowing out in the last four.
To say the form lines in terms of the league campaign are varied would be an understatement. Clondegad just came up short in their bid to win a first Cusack Cup title, while Cratloe were relegated to Division Three. That stat must be tempered with the fact that the when Cratloe line out for this game, it could well be an entirely different starting 15 from any of those league games. They have consistently bucked the trend of league and championship form, so much so that when they were first crowned champions in 2013, they were plying their trade in the league division they now find themselves in. That experience of getting themselves right for championship will have kicked in over the last few weeks and Colm Collins will have his charges primed for this one.
There are fascinating battles in store all over the field, with much of them centred around who will be designated for the danger men. Few will know the threat Gary Brennan poses better than his county manager and be under no illusions but that Colm Collins will have thought long and hard about how to try and lessen the impact of his captain. It could well mean sacrificing someone to sit around the half-back line to crowd the space, but you can rest assured that very few, if any, of Pierce DeLoughery’s kick-outs will be heading long. Tony Kelly will also need watching on the inside line and it might take the pace of Liam Markham to stick with him on those mazy runs. Eoghan Donnellan will offer a ball-winning option while Paudge McMahon’s return to fitness is another boost.
Clondegad have plenty defensive match-ups to consider and the loss of James Murphy and Joe Neylon to injury will hurt their options. Cillian Brennan on Podge Collins would look like an obvious move while they will also have to think about keeping the likes of Conor McGrath, Rian Considine, Billy Connors and Diarmuid Ryan in check. Brian Carrigg, Peter Casey and Conor McNeilis will need to be on red alert to curb their impact on the game. Mikey Hehir and his management are experienced and astute so there will be a plan in place to deal with what is coming at them.
It really is a difficult one to call. On form, Clondegad are the obvious pick but Cratloe have consistently proven they are a championship team. The Cusack Park factor could also come into play and to that end, Cratloe may have more pace to their side to cause the damage. It will all boil down to what plan Collins comes up with to deal with Gary Brennan and how Cratloe set up to deal with that threat. This one will have a real championship feel to it because whoever loses will be in the last chance saloon to save their season. This one will not be decided until the closing stages, but the greater balance in the Cratloe attack might just make the difference.