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Pointing the way forward: New Clare manager Wayne Freeman is aiming for promotion this season to Division 2. Photograph by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Freeman sets sights on promotion for Clare ladies

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One would be forgiven for thinking that Freeman, Hunt and Willis was a high powered law firm but Clare’s new ladies football management have been holding court together for the past six years.

Formulated as a backroom team for their native Kildare’s Minor LGFA team back in 2018, the triumvirate have subsequently developed an innate understanding and bond that has seen them incrementally move up the ranks of ladies football.

Appointed as Louth’s flagship manager for 2020, under Freeman the Wee County quickly ascended from being a struggling Division 4 side to an established intermediate team and now the next rung of that ladder for the trio is to finally bridge that 14-year gap to Clare’s last All-Ireland Intermediate Championship crown.

First thing’s first, Clare’s new-look squad and management team need to construct a well-oiled championship machine which means that the county’s new surroundings in Division 3 of the National Ladies Football League will be predominantly utilised as the ultimate trial period for their 37 women panel.

“It’s going great so far. It’s about two and a half months since we did the trial period so we’re carrying about 35 players at the moment and there are one or two players that are playing other sports that haven’t come in yet. So they are on the extended squad at the moment and we’ve about 35 active players.

“We spent about six or seven weeks in the gym before we went out on the field. I don’t like to go out onto the field too early with the winter weather as you wouldn’t be long getting fed up with football very quickly if you’re out in the rain for long periods.

“So we’re trying to time it right. We look fit, we’re playing with a lot of confidence and the gameplan looks fairly set in the girls so we’re happy enough.”

So what was your motivation to take on the Clare job?

“First and foremost, there’s definitely huge potential in Clare. I was going to take a break after Louth to be honest and then the job came up. I didn’t expect it to come up, I thought Evan [Talty] might stay on so when it did come up, my eyes lit up and I immediately said to myself that I’d like a crack at that. So I just applied for it and came through the normal process from there.”

And from initial expectations to the reality of the talent pool that has competed in the trials, is the predominant mood one of encouragement, surprise or satisfaction so far?

“Probably combination of all three to be honest. I think the household names that we have and that as Louth manager we would have done opposition analysis on in previous years are as good as we expected.

“However, there are also a few nice surprises from girls that have probably been on the periphery of previous squads but are now really, really standing up. It’s probably a clean slate for some players, fresh eyes that have given them a new lease of life perhaps so we’re really happy overall with the dynamic.

“A few players have also come back into the set-up like Caoimhe Harvey our inspirational captain and Orla Devitt who is based in Belfast in college has also committed to us which have really boosted the squad. So there’s a lot of positivity around the group and there’s a great bond there so we’re really happy with the way it’s going and are looking forward to getting going this Sunday.

“We have a few serious footballers and some strong athletes as well so the balance is quite nice around the squad.”

Clare will be without the likes of key leaders Niamh O’Dea and Laurie Ryan for their National League campaign but that is offset by the fact that the Banner are competing for the first time in 12 years in Division 3 which Freeman feels is the ideal breeding ground to familiarise himself with the talent and character of his players.

“It’s great for us this year. I mean the girls will say that Division 2 is tough as one would expect it to be but with the split in the last two years as well, it made it even more difficult.

“So lose even one game and you’re in serious threat of relegation from the beginning. It almost becomes a championship so for us this year, being in Division 3 isn’t the worst of spots.

“Obviously there are a couple of players that haven’t come back so there’s a little bit of transition but being in Division 3 and having a full seven match league campaign under our belts going into championship should really stand to us going forward.

“Don’t get me wrong as Division 3 is still going to be tough because everyone is at the same level. That competitiveness is great because if you don’t perform you may not receive the trimming that you would in Division 2 but you’ll still lose and from my experience with Louth, there are good learnings to be gotten in Division 3.

“The weather at this time of year is also a real leveller so it’s pretty much a level playing field in Division 3 as most teams would fancy their chances of winning it which is good.”

Speaking of aims, what are your objectives?

“Well we’re looking to reach a league final anyway. That’s our first ambition and after that we just have to take it competition by competition and build incrementally as the year develops.

“At the moment we’re at league level fitness and not championship level fitness so the National League will be used for varying reasons.

“Our line-up across the seven matches will change because we have to rotate with the levels of fitness, the heavy ground as well as giving girls proper chances and not just five minutes at the end of games.

“So the league final is something we’re aiming for to challenge perhaps Kildare who I expect to get there. Being my home county would be a nice day out as well.”
And you don’t mind the arduous round trips from Kildare to Clare?

“We’re well used to it as the three of us have been together for a long time now so we’re well used to spending long periods of time in the car together. We work on gameplans, talk abut players and review trainings and games there so the transition that way has been fine.”

Not a practical office for their potential solicitors’ firm of the future but for the moment, the car brainstorming sessions are certainly benefiting Wayne Freeman, Lee Hunt and Brian Willis in their quest to take Clare to the next level.

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