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Meath are among the sides Clare and Pearse Lillis will face in Division 2 this year along with Derry, Dublin, Cork and others.

Pearse ready for road with Clare footballers once again

A MEASURE of how much the Clare team has changed over the years and is in a constant state of evolution comes footballing home when you look at the first time Pearse Lillis was handed a senior jersey by Colm Collins in the National League.

It was seven years ago this Sunday in Miltown Malbay when Clare started their Division 3 campaign with a 1-11 to 0-7 win over Sligo. Lillis was at wing-back that day — the only other starters still standing are Cian O’Dea and Jamie Malone who were with him in the defence, midfielder Cathal O’Connor and captain Eoin Cleary up front.

Gone is the backbone of that first Colm Collins team that helped lift Clare from Division 4 to 3 and then to the higher altitude again of Division 2 for 2017.

From Joe Hayes in goal through to David Tubridy at corner-forward, with some other giants — in stature and otherwise and football-wise — in bulwarks like Kevin Harnett, Marty McMahon, Gordon Kelly, Gary Brennan, Seán Collins, Enda Coughlan and Shane McGrath also among the departed, it’s a team gutted.

And there’s more — subs that came on that day like Pat Burke, Graham Kelly and Sean Haugh are also gone, with Keelan Sexton, who was introduced in the first half that day being the exception.

That brings to six the number of survivors, with the 18-year-old debutant that was the Cooraclare tyro that day in just his first year out of minor now one of the most seasoned — not in the veteran classes because he only turns 25 this year, but grizzled nonetheless with more big games banked in football and hurling than many with loads more mileage put into their legs.

County senior hurling finals times four; Munster finals times two; an All-Ireland final — not forgetting the Milesians’ run to the 2015 county final that provided the push for Colm Collins to
give him that senior jersey; and the journey with Care since then taking in All-Ireland quarter-finals times two in Croke Park, that Division 3 title win at the same venue and much more.

A lot of big days; a lot of big games and it’s precisely because of this workload that Lillis was one of the last to return to training this term as Colm Collins’ charges ramped up their preparations for what will be a seventh successive season in Division 2.

And, he returned just as the chattering classes in Clare football could tell you the destination of his boarding card as he was taking flight on a year-out — his seven-year itch to get away and all that, which would leave a massive hole to be filled for Clare, whether at wing-back or wing-forward where he has oscillated between since going back to Miltown for that first day seven ago.

“I will be playing with Clare this year and then reassess after that,” he deadpans to The Clare Champion this week when taking time out from his teaching duties in Coláiste Muire Máthair in Galway to look ahead to the Louth game.

By then, however, he’d already announced his return on the pitch when giving the chattering classes their answer the previous Sunday week in Quilty when marking his introduction to the McGrath Cup clash with Cork as a 26th-minute sub for the injured Jamie Malone by splitting the posts within six minutes.

Indeed, that point was a microcosm of what Lillis has given to Clare these past seven years — the workrate and energy, but also that confidence to shoot for scores and land them. This is what makes his return for an eighth season after a long club year hurling with Ballyea all the more vital.

Lillis’ presence is at the core of this side — it means that along with the five others left from his first day in 2016 and others like Ciarán Russell, Cillian Brennan and Darren O’Neill, it will be a seasoned Clare squad that takes the field in this year’s campaign. And, an ambitious team looking to go further.

“Division 2 is always tough out,” says Lillis, “as any of the games that you win or lose, there’s only ever a point or two in it, while there are plenty of draws in it as well. There are a lot of close games. We know what to expect.

“Every other team seems to be going up or down and we have been solid enough that we stayed in Division 2, but we’re obviously looking at trying to progress further and getting up to Division 1. That’s what we aim for.”

It’s fully 30 years since Clare first made that giant leap from the second tier to Division 1 football — it was in 1993 that a famous Easter Sunday win on the road in Castlebar against Mayo helped the county reach a first National League semi-final in 46 years.

With that Clare had cut off All-Ireland champions Donegal in Croke Park in a game where one of the highlights was provided by Lillis’ clubmate Tom Morrissey when raising a free flag with a wonder strike into the Canal End goal.

Thirty years on Clare will again play National League football in Croke Park, and while they won’t be playing the All-Ireland champions like they did in ’93, it will be arguably the most competitive Division 2 they’ve ever faced into.

Leinster champions Dublin; Ulster champions Derry; a new Meath under their greatest ever in Colm O’Rourke; a Louth side under the spell of the great Mickey Harte; a Cork side that seems to be stirring itself — the list goes on.

“Dublin coming down to Division 2,” says Lillis, as if already warming himself under the Croke Park lights that will be shining down on the last Saturday in February. “It will be great to get to play them. They are one of the few teams that we haven’t played at this stage. It is a great challenge and that’s what you want.

“We have had a nice few wins in the last few years. The win up in Cavan was a great one that I remember. We beat them by a point. Obviously, the Roscommon game last year and we’ve done against them a good few times.

“They’re highlights, but we just haven’t been able to take a top two or three team. Against team below that, we’ve won some and lost some, but it would be great to a result against one of the really top teams,” he adds.

For Clare, it won’t be for the want of effort — it never is, with Lillis’ merciless work ethic, never mind the ‘cut’ and edge he brings to his game being a template for Clare. That never-take-a-backward-step has always been his mantra.

There have been many examples of this down the years — take his first big championship match in that debut season of 2016. He had started the quarter-final win over Limerick, but Kerry in the semi-final in Killarney was different level stuff as he came on for black-card victim Padraic Collins late in the first half.

Clare were over-run that day but still, Lillis stood out, kicking 0-3 from the bench to show what a gem Collins had given wings to and from there he was part of the team that took flight on a famous run through the Qualifiers to reach a first ever All-Ireland quarter-final.

“We had a successful year that year and you fell in love with it then,” he says, “winning games and going well and you keep going after getting a taste of that.

“It wasn’t too bad when I first came in,” he continues, “as I knew a few of the lads in there — Colm Collins had a development squad so people were in and around the senior squad for two years previously and if he wanted numbers for training you’d be in helping out.

“Coming in first, you think everything is being done perfectly but as the years go on everything gets more professional. The top teams are setting the standard and you have to try and match that as best you can.

“The preparation has gone through the roof in the last few years and it’s nearly a different sport than it was in 2016 in terms of tactics. Every team is doing it so you have to try and match them, to try and be better than them to compete.”

So it is that Clare are shooting for those stars, with the prospect of a first-ever Mickey Harte team in Cusack Park being viewed through the prism of it being as great a task as the Dubs under those big city lights on 25 February.

“It’s a massive start,” says Lillis. “After the Louth and Meath games we will reassess after that, but we need to get as many points as we can in those two games because it sets up the whole league. We have actually had good enough starts in the campaigns and if we got points out of those two games you’re looking up rather than worrying about going down. That’s where we want to be.”

Always looking forward. Never taking a step back. Pearse Lillis in microcosm. Again.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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