As with most championship exits, the commentary in the wake of Clare’s defeat against Waterford last weekend has ranged from measured to mad.
There are plenty points which will be a source of regret when the analysis of this game is carried out, but on a very basic level it was undoubtedly the number of unforced errors and concession of three preventable first half goals that ultimately led to Clare’s downfall.
The injury sustained by Tony Kelly in the warm up which was aggravated even further inside the opening five minutes was also a huge factor, with the concession of that second goal while he was off the field receiving treatment being a real ‘salt in the wound’ moment in the game. As you would expect from the Ballyea man, he soldiered on to the bitter end but with his movements limited at corner forward, the spark that has lit the torchpaper over the last few games for Clare was dampened.
The irony of it is that no matter how gloomy a prism is used to look at this game, the reality is that it had Aaron Cunningham’s goal chance been taken, it would have put a far different complexion on those closing ten minutes. At that stage, just two points would have separated the sides despite Waterford having dominated the lion’s share of the second half. A hammer blow like that could well have seen Clare grasp the initiative, but as all good teams do, Waterford not only repelled the attack but broke away for Calum Lyons to score at the other end and it really was the defining moment of the game.
For the second championship game this year, the concession of three goals is talking point for Clare but the manner of the defending that allowed those chances to materialise will be the greatest concern. On all three occasions, harmless long deliveries caused huge panic in the Clare defence and that subsequent loss of shape proved the ultimate undoing. Stephen Bennett was afforded time and space to run at the heart of the Clare defence before offloading for Austin Gleeson, and despite a fine save from Eibhear Quilligan, Dessie Hutchinson was left unmarked to sweep home. The battle between Hutchinson and Rory Hayes was one of the best duels of the game, but the manner in which Hayes lost track of his man for both those first half goals will be a source of disappointment. The Wolfe Tones man spent the remainder of the game atoning for it and was Clare’s outstanding performer along with Cathal Malone in the second period.
The source of the second goal was again a basic long clearance from Stephen O’Keeffe but it deceived everyone bar Hutchinson who was quickest to turn before producing a deft finish. The third came from a sideline cut which was gathered by Hutchinson close to the endline, but four Clare defenders were drawn to the Ballygunner man, with Jack Fagan left all alone 12 yards from goal and he was only glad to oblige in finishing to the net. A soft Kieran Bennett point arrived soon after so from a position of being a point up heading toward half time, Clare were instead looking a three point deficit.
Poor decision making also cost Clare at crucial stages, particularly in the second quarter. Aron Shanager’s deadly double had wrested the momentum back to his side, but failure to capitalise on that would prove crucial. Two poor wides followed from distance when the better option would have been to continue feeding Shanagher who was clearly in a purple patch. By contrast, Waterford made the most of their next two scoring opportunities to get themselves back in front.
When plans for 2021 are being drawn up, priority number one for Brian Lohan and his management team will be to find a dominant centre back who will plug the gaps that appeared last weekend. All too often the heart of the Clare defence was left vacant for Waterford to run through, which was evident from the first play of the second half as Jack Fagan went unchallenged to the 21m line before being fouled. The overlaps that created put massive pressure on the Clare full back line, with the statistic that Conor Cleary and Rory Hayes were two of Clare’s top three possession holders being evidence of that.
In an overall sense, there will also be a feeling that in many respects, 2020 really was a shot to nothing. None of these players had ever played in a winter championship, so everything was a new experience. The preparation time for championship was less than ideal, and the momentum built up during the league campaign was null and void by the time it came around. The loss of so many key players has been well documented by now, so the prospect of having John Conlon, the Galvin brothers and Peter Duggan back for the 2021 series is a positive to look forward to. There is also plenty to be positive about with the new brigade who are ready to make their breakthrough with the likes of Mark Rodgers and Cian Galvin waiting in the wings for a run at the 2021 campaign. Add that to the continued emergence of Rory Hayes, Aidan McCarthy and Aron Shanagher, and there is certainly cause for optimism.
It is now vital that attentions turn to the off field matters and developing the strategies that can allow Clare to compete with the counties who have the bigger budgets. It is no secret that Clare were working from a modest base this year, so every effort now has to be made to ensure that every single resource needed for Brian Lohan and his management team is made available next year, and that their involvement in having to arrange that is also kept to a minimum so as to allow them focus on their roles. The support structures have to be built around the management team and that leadership has to begin at the top.
The immediate emotion is certainly one of disappointment tinged with regret, but the green shoots of Winter 2020 will provide the optimism for further growth to come.