Sometimes there are no words to sum up outright dejection in a sporting context.
Sunday was one of those days. Long before James Owens brought the misery to an official end, many of the Clare fans in the Gaelic Grounds had done so themselves as they streamed out towards the Caherdavin End. It summed up the mood of the day with many begging for the towel to be thrown in once Aaron Gillane fired to the roof of the net with ten minutes to go. In truth, it had been thrown in well before that with Limerick in total cruise control without so much as a glove being laid on them. They were fighting for their championship lives but Clare should have been scrapping for something much more important than that.
This was a Clare team who had been humbled in their own back yard by Tipperary seven days previously and had been rightly challenged to prove that it was a once off occurrence that might actually light the torch to set their championship season alight. In the end, the humbling doled out by the All-Ireland champions was even greater, both on the score-board and on the field. Limerick were sharper, more intelligent, better drilled, cuter, and pumped. They needed to respond in front of a home crowd who had seen them stunned by Cork on what was meant to be a triumphant return as champions, and they set down a marker last weekend that they are not handing back Liam without a fight.
Clare were out-thought and out-fought for the second week running and it appeared as if no lessons had been learned from the previous outing. Whatever about the tactical battle, it was the lack of effort that will rancour with most supporters. Clare allowed Limerick to create space as they pleased and the points scored by Declan Hannon and William O’Donoghue encapsulated that. The only way that they could have more space is if someone handed them the deeds to the grounds. You could count the amount of hits put in by Clare players on one hand, and it really looked to be a case of men against boys when the squeeze came on. The space created in front of the Limerick full-forward line meant Gillane, Casey and Mulcahy were in the perfect environment to do damage, and they did it with aplomb. Contrast that with what Clare tried with Conlon and Shanagher. They were forced to try and live off aimless rushed ball, and Limerick hounded in packs to cut down the supply.
It was a Clare team bereft of ideas and drastically short on inspiration. That is the worrying aspect. Now the challenge becomes all about trying to take a beaten and bruised squad off the canvas and pressing the reset button. Cork will come with all guns blazing but the reality of the situation is that a Clare win may still not be enough to save their season. The question will be is the desire still within the camp to keep 2019 going? While that might sound harsh, it is a more than fair question to ask. As pointed out last week, Clare hurling fans are maybe too well versed in handling championship defeats, but the manner of these last two is what is the most worrying. Put simply, Clare rolled over and there is no other way to dress that up. Limerick are All-Ireland champions and were always going to be a tough prospect but the least expected from a Clare team is to go down with their boots on. That simply did not happen and if this week will be about anything, it will have to be about getting back to basics.
In an era where stats are king, turnovers, tackles, hooks and blocks must be the primary focus when the numbers are crunched on Sunday evening. The concern among many Clare supporters is that an over-reliance on in-depth analysis is hindering the fundamentals of the game. Without being too simplistic about it, beating your man, keeping possession and sticking the ball between the posts will win you most games.
It will have been another tough week for all involved and morale will be close to rock bottom. One of the most frustrating aspects is that anyone who knows anything about Clare hurling knows this is one of the most talented group of hurlers that has ever been produced. They have brought about some of the greatest days at both underage and senior level and that can never be forgotten. They have been fabulous ambassadors for Clare and that can never be forgotten.
That is why they have to respond on Sunday. Whether or not it is good enough to keep them in the championship should be a secondary concern. If Clare lose, it will likely see the end of a managerial duo who have been central to developing the current crop. Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor deserved their shot at the top job in Clare hurling, and what they have achieved should always be rightly lauded. A third consecutive defeat will likely see them step away, and it could also signal the beginning of the end for this current group of players. If the result in Thurles does not go Clare’s way, this group deserve to bow out having stood tall in the face of adversity.
The squad and management are the only ones who can ensure that happens. It all boils down to them on Sunday. If there were a notebook full of questions after losing to Tipperary, then that became a novel after last weekend. Criticism is part and parcel of the territory and there has been plenty of that this week. There has also been plenty praise when it was deserved too, so this group now need to write their own narrative in Cusack Park. The talent is there, but the desire needs to outweigh it.
By Derrick Lynch