It was a year of change in the Clare senior football championship as five teams lost their place in the top tier.
St Joseph’s Doora Barefield, Wolfe Tones, O’Curry’s, Kilfenora and St Breckan’s all fell through the trap door and will compete in the intermediate championship in 2019.
It followed a recommendation from the football review committee to reduce the number of teams in the race for Jack Daly while also strengthening the competition in the second tier.
It was also the year that Ennistymon broke the glass ceiling to reach a first county senior football final in the club’s history, but on that day, they faced an opposition who proved themselves a step above the rest as St Joseph’s Miltown were crowned champions for the second time in the last three years.
Led once more by Michael Neylon, the West Clare men swept all before them en route to the title with comfortable wins over Wolfe Tones and Doonbeg in the opening rounds. A revenge mission awaited in both the quarter-final and semi-final as they renewed rivalries with the two sides who had beaten them at the last four stage in the previous two campaigns. Clondegad were first to be put to the sword before an eye-catching victory over Cratloe saw them back into the final.
Waiting there was an Ennistymon outfit who were quickly becoming the story of the championship. Five goals were put past O’Curry’s in round one before claiming bragging rights over neighbours St Breckan’s in round two. That set up a showdown with a rejuvenated Eire Óg side in the quarter final where history was made as a 2-12 to 2-10 victory meant the North Clare magpies were now preparing for the last four of the championship for the first time. Standing between them and the biggest day of all were the defending champions in the form of Kilmurry Ibrickane. On a rain-sodden day in Cusack Park, the slimmest of margins proved crucial as a one point win sent them through.
On the day, it was Miltown who would reign supreme but not without a stern test from Ennistymon. There were just two points between them at the break before the west Clare outfit kicked on to recapture their crown.
Miltown clubman and former Clare senior football selector David O’Brien feels this year showed just how much talent is in the squad.
He said: “Miltown are a team filled with pace and really good footballers. The advantage they have is that some of their county players are in such good form, teams spent so much energy on trying to stop them, and that gifts space to the other players who can really hurt you. Look at the likes of Colin Hehir who was raiding from the half-back line to kick some brilliant scores during the year. Cormac Murray came under the radar because everyone was preoccupied with Eoin Cleary and it worked a treat.”
It was Miltown’s second championship since 2015, which was the year the club broke a 25 spell without Jack Daly. O’Brien says backing up that win in 2018 was a special moment.
“When they won in 2015, they got a lot of jibes back saying that they hadn’t beaten teams who had won a championship in recent times. It was a fair point but it was something the lads took as belittling the championship they had won and they wanted to rectify that. This year was different. They beat Doonbeg who have buckets of tradition, beat a Clondegad side who had contested the Cusack Cup final and then taking out Cratloe, who were champions in 2014, was brilliant. Any team can come and win a championship once but to come back and win the second one was a huge moment for them” according to the publican.
The Miltown story didn’t end in Cusack Park as they blew away the Nire in Fraher Field to reach the Munster club final where Kerry kingpins Dr Crokes awaited. It wasn’t to be Miltown’s day as a blistering start from the Killarney men proved too much for Michael Neylon’s side to reel in. O’Brien says despite the result on the day, it’s one that will live long in the memory.
“We thought that watching Gordon Kelly lifting the Jack Daly was the highlight of the year, and then we went to Waterford and that topped everything up to that point. The day of the Munster Final was just incredible. The roar that greeted the team when they came out onto the field was something like you would hear at an inter-county game rather than a club match. It didn’t go their way and Dr Croke’s were deserving winners but you have to be proud of how they fought right to the end and they will take a lot from that” he said.
While Jack Daly is sitting proudly in the parish of Miltown Malbay for the winter of 2018, O’Brien is warning that while celebrations were good, it’s now time to refocus to avoid seeing the famous trophy leaving next year. He feels while the champions are ahead of the pack based on this season, the gap is not one that can not be closed.
“I don’t think they’re that far ahead of everyone else. Nobody knows what’s around the corner. Miltown do have a strong panel and this year they managed to cope with losing the likes of Seanie Malone and Shane Curtin to injury, but they were well covered in those areas. If they lost some of the lads up front, then you come under pressure to see where are the scores going to come from to win games. Every team has those concerns. Clondegad were without Shane Brennan and if they get him back, that will be serious addition to them. Kilmurry will come again, that’s for certain. The last time Miltown won the championship, Kilmurry came back and won the next two. Cratloe are another threat and while people saw it’s very hard for them to keep the dual thing going, I think they’re exceptionally good at both and they weren’t far off the pace this year. Eire Óg have incredible talent coming through and now have Dean Ryan back so that’s a major bonus to them. Cooraclare are capable of causing plenty problems and then you have Ennistymon looking to make another run too so there’s plenty lined up to have a cut off Miltown” said O’Brien.
2018 saw Kilrush Shamrocks regain their spot in the top tier with victory in the intermediate championship at the second time of asking. O’Brien is expecting the Shams to make their mark next year.
He said: “They did very well this year but they have lost Dermot Coughlan as manager and he is going to be hard to replace. Whoever comes in will have to get his ideas across and start from scratch there. There’s a couple of older players there who committed to the effort to come out of intermediate but maybe they won’t decide to continue at senior so there could be a bit of re-building job there. They’d love to get to a quarter-final but I would guess if you offered them right now to stay out of the relegation battle, they’d take it. If they can stay out of the relegation scrap early, then they’re the type of team who could easily go on a run”.
When the 2019 senior championship rolls around, it will see the addition of two new group teams in the hunt for the title with the introduction of new entities in the north and west of the county. O’Brien feels this development will lead to a lot of debate in the months ahead.
“I’m very sceptical about it to be honest. You would love to see every player get the chance to play senior football, that’s a given. You look at the likes of Kevin Harnett who has played at junior and intermediate level with Meelick or Cathal O’Connor who has done the same with Coolmeen, you would love to see them playing at the top level. That would help develop things from an inter-county point of view too. You just have to ask the question of what will happen if one of the group teams are relegated as to how that will impact on the championship down the road. There’s going to be a lot of balancing required too between the group teams playing senior and the clubs playing their own championship then and will one be prioritised over the other depending on how results are going. There’s a lot of unknowns around it at the moment. For me, it’s in the open box at the moment. I don’t know if it will be a positive or a negative, but I’m just a bit worried” he concluded.
You can listen to the full interview with David O’Brien below