National Football League
Division 2 Semi-Final
(Extra-Time if Necessary)
Clare v Mayo at Cusack Park Ennis, Sunday 1.45pm
(Niall Cullen, Fermanagh)
It’s 19 years since Clare were dining at the top table of the National League.
That’s a statistic worth soaking in ahead of this veritable winner-takes-all showdown for a coveted place in Division 1 for 2022.
Of course, with James Horan’s side off the back of an All-Ireland Final appearance as recently as December, a Clare victory won’t be expected or predicted but in truth, they won’t get a better opportunity to bridge that two decade gap and reclaim their place in the top tier.
There have been close calls in recent years, no more so than last year when the Banner’s league status flitted between Divisions 1, 2 and 3 in a dramatic finale against Armagh.
However, this time around, there’s no dependency on other teams or results, it’s a clearcut clash for the carrot of a place in Division 1 and sharing of the Division 2 title alongside the winners of Meath and Kildare.
With home advantage not diluted by Mayo’s inordinate number of traveling supporters that certainly impacted the county’s last competitive meeting in the 2017 All-Ireland Qualifiers (that finished 2-14 to 0-13 in Mayo’s favour after a 12 point turnaround), Clare will be quietly confident of causing an upset.
After all, despite the mammoth losses of retirees Gary Brennan and Gordon Kelly, there’s something a little different about Clare this year in terms of self-belief and confidence that has made them feel as if they can match any team in the country on a given day.
Successive victories over Laois and Kildare were not even diminished by a narrow reverse to Cork a fortnight ago as realistically the result could have gone either way.
Mayo, following a perfect start of victories over Down, Westmeath and Meath, appear to be peaking at the ideal time too and by now are fully accustomed to having the favourites tag upon their shoulders.
History will infer that just as in 2017, Clare will make Mayo sweat for 45-50 minutes before the latter’s experience and winning know-how seems them prevail. However, with marquee players Jamie Malone and Podge Collins expected to return to the squad, a near full strength Clare can afford to throw everything at their lofty opponents.
After all, while no-one will actually say it out loud, with a scorned Kerry standing obtrusively in the way to any potential championship run for the Banner, realistically this is Clare’s All-Ireland Final.
by Eoin Brennan