DIVISION 3 has emerged as a particularly congested and unpredictable league this season. With just two rounds left to play, the only team that cannot be relegated in Kildare. They are on eight points from five matches followed by four teams on six points including Clare and Longford, who meet in Cusack Park on Sunday. Tipperary and Offaly also sit on six points, which leaves five teams, including Kildare, vying for the two promotion places.
Clare’s three wins have been achieved against the bottom-three teams, Limerick, Westmeath and Sligo, while they have lost away to Tipperary and Offaly. This weekend’s game is a very significant one on several fronts. The winner will be potentially one game away from promotion, while the loser could, in a worst-case scenario, end up relegated.
Clare will play Kildare away in their final league fixture and definitely do not want to have to travel looking for a win to ensure their divisional status.
If Clare are to win on Sunday, against a county who knocked them out of the All-Ireland qualifiers in Cusack Park last summer, they will have to up their game considerably.
hile their one-point defeat to Offaly looks like a narrow reverse, the performance was a listless one in the first half. They did improve somewhat after half-time and were somewhat unlucky not to at least draw. However, Clare cannot look at any issue, beyond their own display, when unearthing why they lost.
Several elements of their display lacked conviction. They struggled all over the field to deal with Offaly’s support running and the speed of their game. Clare must look at setting themselves up more cleverly with regard to dealing with teams running at them. That is perhaps a reason why they are surely considering starting Graham Kelly in the half-back line, provided his fitness is up to lasting a possible 70 minutes.
Clare need more of a presence in that part of the field and Kelly showed, as a second-half substitute against Offaly, that he still has that. The Clare backs and midfield were overrun several times in Tullamore and if Longford take note of the DVD from that game, they will try to execute a similar game plan. It has to be borne in mind that Clare only lost by a point, so changing things completely is not a requirement. However, they do need added legitimate physicality in that middle third, while their half-forward line also needs something of a shake-up.
Shane McGrath is not going well and perhaps Jamie Malone would provide a focal point at centre-forward, while perhaps Pat Burke will come in for his first league start to freshen up the full-forward line. Clare need to try to keep Eoin Cleary as close to goal as possible and if they want an inside forward to roam, David Tubridy is the man for that job. He is well capable of setting up play and bringing the full-forward line into the game and can kick scores from distance.
Clare need more from the Doonbeg man, along with Seán Collins, Gary Brennan and Cathal O’Connor at midfield. For the first time in several seasons, the Clare midfield were outplayed two weeks ago and Sunday is the day to reassert their prowess in that sector.
Now managed by Denis Connerton, Longford will be buoyant following their win over Tipperary two weeks ago and having won in Clare last year, they will travel with conviction and confidence. They won 2-12 to 1-12 on their last visit, while the kicking of 12 wides was a huge factor in Clare’s demise. They also made poor decisions on the ball, conceded scoreable frees and generally did not look as sharp as Longford, who were slicker and much more economical in possession.
Jack Sheedy’s team were reduced to 14 men when Diarmuid Masterson was sent off on a second yellow card 12 minutes from time but the extra man seemed to make no discernible difference. Dessie Reynold’s second-half goal was the game’s pivotal score. He put it away just five minutes into the second half, following intelligent play from Rory Connor.
Following a frantic first half, Clare led 1-7 to 1-6 at half-time. This was despite the fact that they kicked nine first-half wides, with Brian Kavanagh the only Longford man to do likewise in the opening 35 minutes.
It was Kavanagh who put away the Longford goal in that opening half, when he fired a penalty high into the right-hand side of Joe Hayes’ net in the sixth minute.
If Clare replicate the lack of urgency of their first-half displays when losing to Tipperary and Offaly, they will be beaten on Sunday.
However, they will surely throw everything at Longford and sustain it for most of the 70 minutes. If they do, they will take a huge step towards a final day promotion showdown with Kildare.