ALL conquering last year and having turned in some dominant displays this summer, Ger Loughnane still feels Galway may not be the irresistible force some feel they are.
He believes if Clare take them on from the first whistle, they may find some flakiness in the Galway ranks. “What I do hope is that Clare go in and ask the questions from the very beginning and just play with total abandon. Not wildness now, with structure; but absolutely have a right cut at them from the start. I think that fellas that collapsed before can collapse again, that’s always my belief. Fourteen of that Galway team, that played the last day, played in the 2016 Leinster final, which was the most abject surrender I’ve seen in the last 10 years in a championship game.”
The Feakle man adds, “They’ve won an All-Ireland since, maybe they’ve turned into a brilliant team since, they look to have, but Clare have to test are they what they seem to be? There’s no need to give advice to the people that are there but that is the one observation I would make, Clare have to test their resolve. These aren’t JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh and those that you’re facing here, fellas with that mentality. You’re facing fellas that in the past have given in when things got really tough.”
A huge problem
Loughnane is very positive about the Clare management, who he feels have found their feet this year, following changes made in the closed season.
“Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, they know what is best really. I think it’s time we started trusting the two boys. They had a huge problem last year in that Donal Óg Cusack was still there and they were playing a more extreme version of the Davy game. This is the first year really you can say they are playing the game we associate with those two fellas. They know the players at their disposal better than anybody else.”
Sections of the Clare support haven’t been as positive, with many expecting changes to be made at centre-back and midfield for the Wexford game, while others have called for the recall of Conor McGrath and the inclusion of Ian Galvin.
However, Loughnane feels the selectors have got it right overall and that hurling is much more of a squad game nowadays.
“Funny enough, I have always been a great fan of Conor Cleary, been a huge fan. I thought Malone the last day, up until he went off, was absolutely terrific in the middle of the field; he really surprised me. I think what people have to adjust to yet, if you look at the four teams that are left, the strength of those teams really is the subs they bring on with 20 minutes to go. Look at Limerick, look at Galway, the choices they have to bring on and Cork, who they have to bring on in the last 15 to 20 minutes. Now, you have Conor McGrath, you have Ian Galvin, you have David Fitzgerald to bring on. That is a huge consideration nowadays and this is the big thing that supporters have to adjust to, it’s not a 15-man game, it’s much more than that now. It’s a panel game. How you use those to best effect is not alone important, it is absolutely crucial.”
He describes himself as being “in total agreement” with how O’Connor and Moloney are doing things at the moment.
When Davy Fitzgerald came out with advice as to how Clare should play for the rest of the year, it was a red rag to some Clare supporters, who found it hard to swallow his brand of hurling when he was over the team.
Loughnane feels moving away from some of the principles Fitzgerald had introduced has worked brilliantly.
“There’s a very simple answer to that, if you look at the Clare full-forward line the last day of Shane O’Donnell, John Conlon and Podge Collins, when in the last four years did we get a return from them under Davy’s system, like we’re getting this year, under the two boys, Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor. It’s totally different. They still play great short balls but now the mixture between the short ball and the long ball, you would say looking on from the sideline, it’s ideal.”
The approach this year has pleased him greatly. “It is really heartening to see them playing hurling in the right way again. There was always going to be a thawing out period from the very structured, very controlled way they played over four years and to adjust to this new system, where players are given more responsibility, you don’t do that by flicking a switch. It takes time, and the good thing about this [championship] system is it has given them time.”
When Clare beat Limerick in Ennis, he really felt the Banner were on the right road. He felt they could dethrone the All-Ireland champions if they came face-to-face.
“The funny thing about it is I said we are the one team that could beat Galway. Galway have such structure and such physical power, but we had a brilliant structure as well that day. What totally surprised me, and I said it afterwards, was the power of Clare in the tackle. When you look at their physical status, you say they won’t be able for this, but Limerick were touted and are still being touted as potential All-Ireland champions because of the physical power they have, as well as their movement. But Clare totally overpowered them on that day. Power isn’t all to do with your physical size, it has a lot to do with your mentality and your approach. I thought that day, that Clare’s overall approach, it was a most impressive display and I really thought we were going somewhere after that.”
While he acknowledges Galway won’t have a problem playing in Croke Park, he feels it’s a good venue for the type of game Clare want to play. He says games there are likely to be less free-wheeling than in Thurles.
“People don’t realise there is a big difference between playing in Thurles and Croke Park. Even Kilkenny have found that. If you look at Kilkenny, they’re not as effective in Thurles as they are in Croke Park. The reason I’m optimistic going there against Galway is Croke Park demands the type of game you had in Cusack Park against Limerick. It is more structured, it is much easier to close down in Croke Park than it is in Thurles. Thurles, I don’t know, the pace of the field, the thing becomes opened and very hard to control. It’s easier control it in Croke Park.
“You’ll see there will be more structure to the game than any of the games in Thurles. The way Clare played in that structured way in Cusack Park gives me massive hope. If they can repeat that, it gives me massive hope for the semi-final against Galway.”
The Banner have the type of players who can present the Galway backs with problems they will not be comfortable with, Loughnane believes.
“The one area that I’d love to see Galway tested is in terms of pace from midfield on. I do think there is a lack of pace among a lot of their defenders. When you play the ball in a very fast way and create that space, like Limerick created last week in Thurles, when you keep the backs separated from each other, I do think they’re vulnerable. I think they’re vulnerable to pace and Clare have the type of pacey players with low centres of gravity that could do real damage to the Galway defence. The other side of it is that the Galway forward line could do real damage to our defence as well, there’s no getting away from that. Obviously the middle third will be vital, it is in all games, but it will be particularly vital against Galway. If we can keep that space in front of the Clare full-forward line, I think there is potential there for doing real damage to the Galway defence.”
Loughnane feels there is a big question mark about the standard of the Leinster championship, given the fact Kilkenny are now far below the standard they once set and the poverty of the Wexford performance against Clare.
Pace and intensity needed
He also believes Clare will take a more constructive approach than Kilkenny did when they faced Galway. “I think they’ll work the ball much better, they’ll run at them, keep them separated from each other and I think, if they do that and keep the pace and intensity, there is a real chance of doing damage to that Galway defence. Now, how well controlled their forwards are, especially Whelan and Mannion and Johnny Glynn at the edge of the square, that’s going to be central to how Clare fare.”
The Banner need to make a powerful start, he believes. “That’s what Clare have to do. They have to go really bald headed for this, right from the very first whistle and see what Galway are made of, see if their appetite is there or not. Ask them real questions. If you do that, if there is any vulnerability there, then you have a great chance of winning. But if you don’t ask the questions, then you won’t get the answers, it’s as simple as that.”
He feels the Clare full-back line don’t attack the ball as they should, due to them playing behind a sweeper for years, while he says the half-forward line must not fade out of the game, as he says happened in the last two matches after half-time.
“What still worries me about Clare going to Croke Park is there is a residue from playing with the sweeper for four years. The full-back line, their instinct for attacking the ball isn’t what it should be and what it needs to be against the likes of Conor Whelan and Mannion. They’re going to have to attack the ball faster.
“The second thing is the fade out of the half-forward line in the second half. These were the two big flaws in the Munster final – the full-back line letting fellas catch the ball, not attacking it hard enough, and the half-forward line fading out. If you remember against Wexford, the half-forward line were brilliant in the first half, Duggan, Kelly and Reidy, they were just outstanding. In the second half, Reidy was taken off, Duggan was eventually taken off, Kelly faded out of the game again. It’s that area that we have be really strong in, in Croke Park.”
Asked about how he expects Galway, the county he managed in the 2007 and 2008 championships, to approach Saturday, he says, “You are going to have a variety of balls going into that full-forward line, high ball into Johnny Glynn and you’ll have Whelan and Mannion running at that Clare defence as well. From outside, you’ll have Canning, Joseph Cooney and Niall Burke shooting from distance. It is a huge challenge to Clare to close down that Galway attack, it is a very good attack, there is no doubt about that. The work of the Clare midfielders and half forward line is going to be absolutely central to closing those down. You just cannot overstate that.”
Overall, he feels Galway deserve to be favourites, but the best of Clare may not have been seen yet. “I think there’s a feeling that even though we’ve seen them play well, there’s more in them going to Croke Park. That’s a very good way to be heading to Croke Park, with a feeling that maybe they’ll really explode when they get there in a semi-final against Galway.”
By Owen Ryan