As Clare prepare to head to Newbridge on Sunday, in Round 6 of NFL Division 2, one statistic from their first five games stands out. While Clare have made 22 substitutions up to now, 15 of which were from midfield up, no substitute has yet kicked a score.
Of the 15 attacking players introduced, seven were brought on in the last 10 minutes. The 15 substitutes referred to have played for a total of two hours and 52 minutes, without adding a score to Clare’s tally.
This fact illustrates Clare’s lack of impact from the bench and while it is difficult for substitutes to immediately get up to the pitch of a game, particularly if it is getting away from their team, it is an area that Clare must try to improve on. Of course, in recent games they have been down personnel, with Seán Collins injured and Shane McGrath opting out of the panel. Ciarán Russell was a big loss against Fermanagh, while Gary Brennan did not feature in the Galway and Cork games. Add in Pearse Lillis’ absence, with the exception of the Down game, when he was introduced 11 minutes from time and it becomes clear that Clare’s options are limited. Six of their outfield substitutes against Fermanagh are U-21 and, indeed, the only subs to have started a league game were sub-goalkeeper Pierce de Loughrey and Seanie Malone.
All of this underlines how well Clare have done to pick up five points from their opening five games. However, with a view on the long-term, adding depth to the panel is vital. Without a doubt some of the younger players, currently on the bench, will develop into senior inter-county footballers and must be given opportunities. However, with Clare travelling to Kildare and hosting Meath in successive weeks, they need all hands on deck now. If Seán Collins was fit for either game, that would be a big boost, while perhaps Shane McGrath could be approached with a view to returning?
Clare need experienced, impact players on the bench, similar to the way that Enda Coughlan impacted on a number of games in 2016. Coughlan gave superb service to Clare and is a big loss with respect to panel depth, following his retirement from inter-county football.
Kildare will approach Sunday’s game confidently but in the knowledge that Clare are dangerous opponents. Kildare won the league tie in Newbridge last year, while Clare played exceptional football to beat the Lilywhites in the Division 3 league final in Croke Park.
Perhaps Clare need to shake things up a bit this weekend and adopt a slightly altered tactical approach. They could opt to bring Ciarán Russell back in, if he has recovered from his hamstring injury. Perhaps they might look at the option of starting him at midfield and deploying Gary Brennan at full or even centre-forward for a stint.
Particularly against Fermanagh and Galway, the Clare inside forwards struggled to hold onto the ball when in contact. Maybe the deployment of a ball-winner in there might help to alleviate that issue and allow the likes of Eoin Cleary and David Tubridy to feed off someone like Brennan? If Clare continue to adopt the same tactical approach, it is likely that they will not be throwing anything new at Kildare. Perhaps Jamie Malone could also be deployed closer to goal and while, when he is going well, his ball carrying is a crucial part of Clare’s game, he is a potent inside forward who can find the net.
Clare conceded 18 points to Fermanagh and without the interventions of Joe Hayes and Gordon Kelly, two white flags could have been added to that. They need to tighten up defensively too and stop conceding too many scoreable frees. Equally, their transition from defence to attack must step up a level. Too often Clare players breaking out are left isolated and without a support player running off them. Also, in those situations, the space is always on the far side of the field but Clare sometimes run into cul-de-sacs when emerging from the back and get bottled up.
This is a huge game for both counties, as a win for Kildare will ensure successive promotions. They will be fired up for this and looking to Paul Cribbin, Tommy Moolick and Kevin Feely.
One of Clare’s strong points this season and last has been how they reacted to a league defeat. Invariably, they win their next game, although that has always been a home fixture. Winning in Kildare will be extremely difficult but first Clare need to significantly up their game, perhaps alter their tactical approach somewhat and take the game to Kildare. That is easier said than done but if they pull that off, they will compete and give themselves a viable chance.
By Peter O’Connell