CLARE’S display against Limerick on May 29 ensured that external expectation will not be an issue in Killarney on Sunday. Supporters will travel in the hope that Clare play well and at least compete with Kerry but nobody will realistically expect a first championship win over their opponents in 24 years.
Within the group of Clare players and management, they will presumably head across the estuary with more ambition and belief.
Two years ago, Clare competed manfully with Kerry in Cusack Park in that year’s Munster semi-final. Clare were beaten 1-17 to 1-13 on a day when Kerry’s Paul Murphy scored a goal on his championship début at corner-back.
That year, Clare played five championship games and were very close to making it to the last 12 of the All-Ireland qualifiers. However, since then, Clare have not reached that level on the championship field, although their second league promotion indicates that significant progress has been made. The thing now is to translate their league consistency into the championship arena.
Despite their league progress, Clare have yet to beat a team outside of Division 4 in the last three championship campaigns. Two years ago, they beat Waterford in a replay and Carlow in the All-Ireland qualifiers, while last year they beat Limerick before losing to Longford in the qualifiers. Twelve months ago, Clare didn’t lay a hand on Cork in Pairc Uí Rínn, although they were without key players for that Munster semi-final.
As regards Sunday, Clare need a performance that will at least push Kerry if they are to show signs that this team has what it takes to make a lasting impression on the 2016 championship. What constitutes a lasting impression? Unexpectedly knocking a team out of the championship is what Clare will aim to do this year. That is not likely to happen on Sunday but, at the very least, Clare need to deliver a performance full of energy, legitimate aggression, belief and reflect that on the scoreboard. In the event of Clare not winning, they could justifiably use a four or five-point reverse to confirm their rising status within the game.
To do that, the starting 15 and whoever comes on must tackle more often and cleverly, vary their kick-out strategy and bury goal chances, if they create them. Their tackling against Limerick was neither frequent enough nor properly executed. Ian Ryan’s 0-7 from frees underlines this.
Individual players must also up their game and if it is passing them by, they must find a way of getting into it. Clare will not compete if Gary Brennan and David Tubridy, for example, don’t deliver big performances. Kerry will, of course, target both and perhaps that might create opportunity for others to find time and space in which to play.
The indications are that Cathal O’Connor will have recovered from the hand injury he sustained against Limerick and will be fit to start, although Enda Coughlan is doubtful, having injured his hamstring on Sunday.
It is very likely that Podge Collins and Shane McGrath will start against Kerry. Collins has too much ability and big-game experience not to have on the field for as long as possible, while if McGrath is playing his way back into form in training, as suggested in his 22 minutes on the field against Limerick, he is good enough to start.
When going well, McGrath is another big-game player, who will not allow the identity of opponents or an occasion distract him. There is a case to be made for holding both in reserve and hoping to stay in the game long enough for them to make an impact from the bench. That would represent a huge gamble though and it would be much more sensible to start at least one of them, which could lead to Pearse Lillis or Pat Burke starting on the bench.
Clare are likely to drop their half-forwards and their midfielders deep when Kerry have possession but, in doing this, balance is key. Every player behind the ball must be doing something constructive and not just filling space. They must push up on Kerry, tackle with discipline and then have the capacity to break at pace and in numbers if they win the ball back. If Clare merely funnel players back, without giving them a clear brief, they will be hammered.
Clare have already travelled to Killarney and won this year. They beat Kerry in the McGrath Cup semi-final on January 10, winning 0-12 to 0-9 against a much-weakened Kerry panel. The crowd that day numbered 805 and is likely to be 20 times higher on Sunday. Kerry will be under pressure from their own supporters to perform and not merely win. Those supporters will take a win for granted but will demand a sign that Kerry will have some chance of matching Dublin, Tyrone and Mayo come the August Bank Holiday weekend. Kerry’s league final defeat to Dublin indicates that they are a good bit behind the league and All-Ireland champions. Still, they are at the very least one of the four most capable teams in Ireland.
It would be a seismic shock if Clare were to win but expect them to compete all over the pitch. On the assumption that they will work harder than they have at any stage in 2016, expect Clare to underline their progress this year with a 70-minute display. That is very unlikely to be good enough to win it but if they keep the deficit to somewhere close to five points, they can prepare for the All-Ireland qualifier draw with reasonable confidence.
By Peter O’Connell