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Gordon Kelly (C) of Miltown makes his acceptance speech after collecting the silverware following their senior football county final replay win over KIB at Cusack Park. Photograph by John Kelly.

Clare Champion 2020 Clare SFC Preview

Derrick Lynch runs the rule over the 12 clubs battling it out for the 2020 Clare SFC title

Clondegad

Since reaching the 2017 decider, Clondegad have struggled to hit those heights again with a tame quarter-final exit against Miltown coming 12 months later. The 2019 championship is one they will want to forget with heavy defeats against Cratloe and Eire Óg seeing their championship ambitions come to an end.

There is a change of management for 2020 as Flan Enright takes over the reins from Mikey Hehir, but his task to guide them back to being championship contenders will not be an easy one. It is understood that county hurling stars Tony Kelly, Niall Deasy and Paul Flanagan are not committing to club football this year and Kelly’s absence in particular will be felt as he provides that creative spark up front.

On the credit side, midfield powerhouse Gary Brennan will be available, which is an obvious boost, while the return to full fitness of Paudge McMahon gives Clondegad another attacking option. Cillian Brennan will provide that steady hand in defence while the likes of Morgan Garry and James Murphy will also be vital if they are to launch any sustained bid for honours.

Cooraclare

The Sky Blues are another outfit who have failed to build on reaching a county showpiece, having narrowly missed out when going down to Miltown back in 2015. Since then , the trajectory of the two clubs has followed vastly different curves with Miltown adding two more titles to their cabinet while Cooraclare have fallen at the quarter-final hurdle in two of the last three seasons.

They were unlucky not to be back in the last eight 12 months ago, when a dramatic draw against neighbours Doonbeg saw them bow out at the group stages on scoring difference. An impressive win over Corofin saw them steer clear of the relegation final, but David Russell and his backroom team will be hoping for a much improved showing this time around.

Sean O’Donoghue’s return to America means his presence and ball-winning ability will be missed around the middle third. Micheál Garry will likely be given the task of anchoring the defence with the Minor B winning captain from last year being one of the most promising prospects in the county. Killian Roche, Pierce Lillis, Ciaran O’Donoghue, John Looney and Jack Morrissey are all key men and will be central to the cause once more. The age profile of the team is at the right side of the elder scale, but a step up is needed to take that development to the next level.

Cratloe

2014 was a historic year for Cratloe as they housed both the Canon Hamilton and Jack Daly, but it was also the last year that either trophy went to south-east Clare.

That aside, Cratloe have consistently been among the top four contenders for senior football honours over the last decade and it would be foolish to bet against them being in that bracket again in 2020. That achievement is all the more impressive by the fact it has been largely the same group of players who have sustained that dual assault in that time,  and those regulars will be carrying it once more this year. Cathal McInerney is a major injury doubt having missed last weekend’s win over Kilmaley, but the likes of the Collins brothers, Diarmuid Ryan, Conor McGrath and Rian Considine offer plenty for the opposition to think about. The addition of Billy Sheehan to the panel adds experience and class, and his coaching background will be something Colm Collins will no doubt utilise too.

The question asked every year seems to be if Cratloe can sustain that dual approach and what effect one campaign will have on the other. They will be hoping to take the direct route through to the semi-final which will give them breathing space.

Doonbeg

2019 was a year of progress for the Magpies after their late late show against Eire Óg saw them reach the last four of the championship. It took a late burst from Miltown before they got past them in that semi-final clash so there is plenty to be positive about ahead of this year’s campaign.

Club stalwart Brian Dillon assumes outright control of the team having served as a selector in recent years and will be looking to take them back into the knockout stages once more. It is a largely settled panel to choose from with the evergreen David Tubridy going to be the key man once more. There is plenty experience around him too with the likes of Eamon Tubridy, Colm Dillon and Enda Doyle continuing to soldier on, but youth will also be a key element. Clare U-20 captain Sean Conway along with Cian O’Mahony and Eoin Conway provide a robust presence in defence while up front Paul Dillon along with Eoghan and Michael Tubridy will also be scoring threats.

Their opening round clash with Ennistymon will tell a lot about where their fortunes lie this year, but there is plenty cause for optimism.

Eire Óg

2020 marks 14 years since Jack Daly last resided at Clonroadmore, with 2014 being the last time the Townies marched behind the band. They did claim the Senior B title last year but it was a consolation prize in a year that had promised much more after coming through the Group of Death.

Paul Madden’s hand has been strengthened for this campaign with the likes of Ciarán Russell and Darren O’Neill making the move back to their home club, and their presence will be significant. Russell has proven himself to be one of the top players in the county over the past number of years while O’Neill will cause plenty problems, particularly under the mark rule, if deployed on the edge of the square. He will have Eimhim Courtney and Gavin Cooney for company in attack with Philip Talty another outlet for doing the damage on the scoreboard.

The return of Russell to the middle third adds more psychical presence for the Townies to complement the threat already offered by Conal O’hAiniféin, Ikem Igweru and Dara Walsh. Cathal Darcy emerged as one of the standout defenders in last year’s campaign and his man-marking abilities will be key.

That balance across the team means Eire Óg have to be on the shortlist for championship honours.

Ennistymon

2019 was a mixed bag for the North Clare men, who stormed out of the blocks with good wins over Doonbeg and Cooraclare in the group stages. The manner of their quarter-final exit against Cratloe is what will have disappointed them most as they bowed out with an 11 point defeat.

Over the last few years, there has always been optimism that Ennistymon are on the verge of a championship breakthrough with the ultimate chance coming in that 2018 final. A consistent conveyor belt of young talent is now starting to develop onto senior level, so hopes will be high that they can continue that progress.

Club stalwarts Laurence Healy and Jow Dowling are still showing the younger brigade how it is done, while established regulars like Willie Murphy, Michael McDonagh and Sean McConigley are all key men. County hurlers David Fitzgerald and Cathal Malone are understood to be part of the panel once more and their pace and strength adds another element to the cause.

The emergence of former Clare minor captain and AFL target Cillian Rouine is a major positive while the likes of Ciaran McMahon and Eoin Rouine will also add that injection of youth for the Kieran Kelleher and Mikey Rouine managed outfit.

Lissycasey

Lissycasey have been holding their own at senior level over the last few years without ever making any real charge for silverware.

They have reached the quarter-finals for the last two years running, and pushed champions Miltown all the way in a tight contest 12 months ago. They were also unlucky not to overcome Kilmurry Ibrickane in the opening group game last year so there are hopes that a big scalp is not too far away.

The reigning O’Gorman Cup champions will offer plenty for opposing defences to think about with the Finnucanes, Griffin’s and Niall Kelly all posing threats. There is a real physical presence around the middle third with Matt O’Shea while Killian Normoyle’s accuracy from both kickouts and long range frees is another weapon in the arsenal. Conor Finnucane will carry the majority of the scoring burden up front but will need back up from the supporting cast if that next step is to be taken.

Former Limerick ladies football boss and Cratloe resident John Ryan is the new man in charge.

Kilmihil

Having made the step up from intermediate in 2017, Kilmihil have held their own at the top table of Clare football.

In their first year back in the top tier, they reached the Senior B decider before losing out to Doonbeg while last year saw them come through the only group of four teams to reach the quarter-finals. They forced eventual finalists Kilmurry Ibrickane to dig deep before eventually bowing out, so there is plenty to be hopeful about ahead of the new term.

It is understood that Jack Browne will not be part of the part of the squad for the coming campaign and his loss in defence will be felt. New manager Ger O’Grady will be hoping that his younger cohort can step up to the plate, with several of the contingent who won the U-21A title alongside neighbours Shannon Gaels set to be central to the cause. Dan Keating’s knee injury will likely see him miss out but the likes of Ciaran Downes, David Egan, David Lernihan, Sean Crowley along with the experienced David Ryan and Martin O’Leary will be key men.

Kilmurry Ibrickane

It was not so much a case of Kilmurry hitting the crossbar last year, but more a case of Sean O’Brien taking the ball down from over it. They are the fine margins that can decide championships with that act coming near the 60th minute of a replayed county final.

The Bricks have been unquestionably the most consistent team of the last 12 years, racking up six championships and eight consecutive Cusack Cup titles in that time. They have also been one of the most consistent in terms of the make-up of their panel with the likes of Enda Coughlan, Ian McInerney, Michael Hogan, Martin McMahon, Shane Hickey and Evan Talty almost ever present throughout that golden period.

The stalwarts are all back again for another shot at adding to their medal haul but it is the younger contingent around them that are key to the cause. Dermot Coughlan and Keelan Sexton are now well into the established phase of their careers, while Aidan McCarthy’s reputation continues to grow. The emergence of new talent like Daniel Walsh and Daryn Callinan to proceedings is another cause for optimism for Aidan Moloney and his management team as they look to go that half step further than 2019.

Kilrush

2019 saw the roll of honour leaders in Clare back in the top tier, but it also saw them come within touching distance of dropping back down.

It was a positive start for the Shams as they overcame the newly formed Naomh Eoin-O’Curry’s combo in the opening game, but combination of defeats to Miltown and Kilmihil along with the technicality which saved the amalgamation from the relegation process saw Kilrush dragged into that dogfight. Victory over Corofin on the final day saw them save their status, and the fact that fate is not an threat this year will be a welcome relief.

Club hero Aidan Daly takes over the reins this year and will be hoping for a much improved showing from his charges. As with most teams, the lack of a league campaign will be a concern in terms of judging progress.

County stars Gearoid O’Brien and Stephen Ryan will once more play key parts alongside Liam Madigan, Matthew Moloney, Joe Miniter and Darragh Bolton. It remains to be seen if evergreen duo Stephen Sweeney and Jim Young extend their careers, but every hand will be needed on deck if a sustained campaign is to be fought.

Miltown

Having established themselves as the top side in Clare over the past two years, 2020 could well prove to be a historic one for Miltown as they make their bid for a first ever trio of consecutive titles.

It won’t be something they will be thinking about with a repeat of last year’s final against their nearest neighbours to contend with from the start, but few would bet against the champions being back in the mix when the race for Jack Daly goes down the home straight.

Having added the 2019 senior title to the intermediate title he won in 2013, David O’Brien’s departure meant a change of management for the third time in as many years. Cork native Ned English did fill that role but it proved to be only for a brief spell, with Maurice Reidy now in charge of the holders.

There won’t be too many surprises in their starting line up but the absence of London based Darragh McDonagh will be factor in the middle third. The ageless Gordon Kelly continues to anchor the defence but it is understood Seanie Malone is an injury concern. Sean O’Brien’s restarts provide that attacking platform with Conor Cleary’s ability to be the link man between the lines being a crucial role. County captain Eoin Cleary and Cormac Murray are the key men up front while Brian Curtin’s energy around the middle will also be crucial.

The crown did not weigh heavy last year and if that holds true in 2020, it will take a huge effort to take it from them.

St Breckan’s

The North Clare men came within a whisker of Munster glory last year with their incredible journey taking them all the way to the provincial intermediate decider.

They also reached the U-21A decider last year which would suggest that the younger talent is there to complement the more established players at senior level. Donie Garrihy is the man on the sideline once more, and he will be eager to ensure that their place at the top table is galvanised for future campaigns.

As shown last year, there is a real balance of power and pace in this St Breckan’s team with a strong spine of Tristan O’Callaghan, Evan Barrett, Alan Sweeney, Dale Masterson, Stephen Tierney, Padraig Kelly and Joe McGann. That is a solid foundation to work from with plenty pace being offered by Aidan Davidson, Colm O’Brien and Rowan Danaher.

They are more than capable of mixing it with the bigger teams and none of them will be hoping to see their name drawn with them. If they can recapture the form of 2019, then who knows what 2020 holds.

About Derrick Lynch

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