HAVING languished in the lower divisions for so long, Clare now enter their fifth consecutive National Football League campaign in Division 2. And as it has constantly proved, there’s no better stomping ground to test every sinew of the players’ resilience and character.
Clare have been repeatedly battling right up to the final minutes, not to mind the last match in what has been the ultimate bearpit.
Due to Covid and time restrictions, the number of bears have been reduced for 2021 but if anything their claws are sharper, an intensity factor that 2019 All Star nominee Jamie Malone only relishes ahead of Sunday’s season commencement.
“Things are going well so far and I think when you’re coming in with a good attitude and enthusiasm, it gets you a long way when you’re tuned into it. So I’m sure we’ll continue to improve and maintain that upward curve over the next few weeks.
“The games will help but you still have to hit the ground running, because there isn’t much margin for error in this kind of condensed league season.
“Division 2 is so competitive since we’ve been in it that all seven league games hold equal importance essentially, as we have never played in a dead rubber in the division.
“Going into the last game or two, we’ve always been looking at either trying to stay out of relegation trouble or looking ahead and maybe trying to sneak into a promotion place.
“That was the case for seven league matches so it’s now doubled down with only three group games and then a play-off.
“So after two games, you’ll know how your season is shaping up which will be strange but I suppose while it’s a completely different challenge this year, ultimately it’s the same for every team.”
It’s arguably the biggest test for Malone and Co. since the Corofin clubman, now based in Dublin, joined the panel in 2014.
“It just means that every game you play this year will be like championship as everyone will be trying to make the most of the league.
“There’s a big cost involved in losing even the first game because suddenly you’re looking over your shoulder and under pressure to steer clear of relegation but then again, the prize for winning a game or two is huge as well in terms of potentially reaching Division 1.
“So I suppose it’s all about knuckling down for these three games because it’ll be over before we know it as once the first game is over, you’re bouncing straight on to preparing for the next one.
“For players, that’s great though. And even the break between the end of the league and the start of the championship is much shorter this year which, from my own point of view anyway, is perfect because there were years there when there were seven or eight weeks of a gap which is a long road in, whereas now we can just keep our focus in for the next six weeks and see where it takes us after that.”
While the All-Ireland Football Championship increasingly seemed like a closed shop with only the bigger counties getting even stronger, last year’s truncated Covid championship did open the door for upsets that the likes of unlikely provincial champions Cavan and Tipperary grasped with both hands.
It’s something which should inspire Clare this year, having beaten Cavan in the league and frustratingly fallen to neighbours Tipperary in last year’s Munster Championship opener.
“This short season can essentially work both ways, you can get on a roll and build up that rapid momentum and confidence but lose a few matches and it can have a similarly spiralling effect because you don’t really have the time to rectify matters.
“So it’s just about tuning in for the next few weeks as much as you can and really focus on the games and the things you can control which is the best state of mind and physical condition.
“It will go quickly but it’ll still be a tough few weeks so hopefully we can get off to a good start and get on a run, just like Tipp and Cavan last year.
“We’ve Laois, Kildare and Cork to come in the next three weeks, teams that we know very well which is an advantage in some respects.
“We’ve two of those matches at home but of all years, the home factor is probably lessened without the presence of fans. So maybe that levels the playing field somewhat, but it’s definitely an advantage to be playing at home in terms of familiarity and less travel.
“Hopefully it will benefit us and give us an edge which could be vital is such a tight division.
“The teams are very well balanced so you’d be confident that if we perform to our best on any given day, we can get the right result.
“It’s been a short run-in, but I honestly think we’re going in the right direction and hopefully that upward curve that we might be on might kick in over the next few weeks as well.”
by Eoin Brennan