The opening round of the Clare senior football championship gets underway this weekend and marks the beginning of the latest era in the race for Jack Daly.
2018 was the year of the big cull as five teams were chopped from the top tier, with just 13 now in the hunt to be crowned champions. It also meant a reshuffling of the structures with group stages coming back into play.
The intrigue increased when a new group team emerged as peninsula neighbours Naomh Eoin and O’Curry’s joined forces to have a crack at the senior championship, and the draw saw them pitted against defending champions St Joseph’s Miltown along with 2018 intermediate champions Kilrush and 2017 intermediate champions Kilmihil. A major talking point in this group has been the issue of how the relegation process will work, with confusion still surrounding how it might play out. The notes which accompanied the 2019 Master Fixtures suggested that the new group team were exempt from the relegation process, but county secretary Pat Fitzgerald stated on numerous occasions that in his personal view Naomh Eoin-O’Curry’s should be treated the same as every other club in that regard. It will lead to some interesting discussions should the new group team finish bottom of their group, with the team that finishes above them then potentially coming into the firing line for the relegation playoffs. Joe Garry and his management team of Dermot Galvin and Johnnie Daly will be going all out to ensure they do not find themselves in that position, but life in the top tier is far from easy.
The title holders will be the clear favourites to make it back to back victories and that status was only increased when they collected the first silverware of the new season in winning the Cusack Cup. Under the guidance of returned former manager David O’Brien, the West Clare outfit will be strongly fancied to top their group and will certainly be in the shake-up to hold onto Jack Daly. All their key men are a year older but if anything it is only a year closer to their prime. The Kelly brothers Gordon and Graham might be ones that bring the average age of the team up slightly, but both are central figures and have been immense for the champions so far this year. Eoin and Conor Cleary along with Darragh McDonagh and Cormac Murray offer solid attacking threats while Enda O’Gorman and Sean O’Brien are as solid as can be at the back.
So where might the biggest threats to the champions come from?
The last time Miltown were crowned champions in 2015, it led to a renewed effort from their nearest neighbours in Kilmurry Ibrickane to bring Jack Daly to the other side of Bealaclugga Bridge which they did for the following two seasons. The man who guided them to those two titles is now back at the reins with Aidan ‘Horse’ Moloney hoping to take up where he left off. The old guard are all still there with the exception of Noel Downes who was forced into retirement due to ongoing issues with injury. His loss is notable, but the Bricks will be hoping that some of the younger talent blooded during the Cusack Cup campaign can continue their development. Getting Dermot Coughlan back from injury is a major plus, and there are few teams better equipped to time a run to the knockout stages. They will get there, and should be in the mix when the finishing line moves into sight.
Ennistymon are another team who tick all the right boxes in terms of their age profile and the experience of reaching last year’s showpiece event will be something they look to draw on. The glass ceiling was broken for the North Clare men in terms of marching behind the band, but there will be some pangs of regret that their maiden tag was not shaken off. They will know there were chances to take the spoils that day, and they will be eager to have the opportunity again this year. A tough group campaign awaits with Cooraclare and Doonbeg to contend with, so they will need to be ready to hit the ground running.
With the four semi-finalists from 2018 seeded for this year’s group stage draw, it meant that Clondegad and Eire Óg were going to find themselves in a tough position having bowed out at the last eight stage. Little did they think they would end up together, and in with Cratloe for good measure. For those on the outside, it makes for a cracking three game series where one of the leading lights will see the curtain come down on their season before the knockout stages. The fact that all three clubs have heavy dual commitments just adds to the drama, and that could well play a part as the weeks go on. Whichever two emerge from the group will hit the quarter-finals with real momentum behind them, but avoiding injuries will be critical in such a demanding schedule.
With a more concentrated 13 team championship to look forward to, it should lead to higher quality games and plenty storylines emerging. On all known form to date, the favourites tag will have to rest with St Joseph’s Miltown who look to be a cut above the rest at the moment. Since making their breakthough in 2015, they have not been outside the top four and there is no reason to suspect that run will end this year. They have one of the top managers in the county in David O’Brien and he will know what is required to keep them on top. There will be plenty challengers, but it is hard to see Jack Daly heading anywhere in 2019 other than to Hennessey Memorial Park.
An intriguing Clare Intermediate football championship also lies ahead in 2019.
The reason for that is last year saw a major cull from the top tier with five teams being relegated and so 8 becomes 12 with the standard of the competition set to increase as a result. Kilrush Shamrocks timed their climb out of the second tier to perfection as they were crowned champions last year, but it was St Joseph’s Doora Barefield, Wolfe Tones, O’Curry’s, St Breckan’s and Kilfenora who saw their status change.
It also meant a slight change in the structure of the championship, with the two groups of four being replaced by four groups of three. It also means that quarter-finals come into play with the top two in each group going through to the knock-out stages.
With the influx of recent senior teams to the fray, it means that the battle for those last eight spots will be intense. On the face of it, the five teams that came down in 2018 should all be in the mix but sport rarely follows the script.
The expected scenario could well come to pass in Group One where Kilfenora, Liscannor and Wolfe Tones are all vying for the two qualification spots. Kilfenora are the team who were operating at the higher level in the league, but their poor Garry Cup campaign will be a concern heading into the championship. They hold an obvious ace in the form of county man Cian O’Dea and all things being equal, should have enough to take one of the top two spots. The last remaining spot is toss of a coin stuff as Wolfe Tones have to readjust to life in the second tier while Liscannor are now accustomed to it.
The toss of a coin could also be used to decide the outcome of Group 2 where Kildysart, St Joseph’s Doora Barefield and Naomh Eoin are all realistic championship contenders. All three had good league campaigns, with Kildysart gaining promotion to the Cusack Cup before a narrow loss to Doonbeg in the Garry Cup final. St Joseph’s came within a few points of joining them there while Naomh Eoin were unlucky to miss out on promotion from Division 3. Whichever two emerge will be in a strong position to make their bid for the title.
The selection process does not get any easier in Group 3 where St Senan’s Kilkee, O’Curry’s and Shannon Gaels all harbour championship ambitions. Much will depend on this weekend’s local derby between the western neighbours with the Gaels content for the moment to be waiting in the wings. All three are more than capable of fighting for the knockout stages, and it is not likely to be decided until the final round.
Eire Óg look to be the team that have the biggest fight on their hands to contend for the top two spots in Group Four. The Townies are the only ‘second’ team in the championship having come up as Junior A champions, and face a seasoned Coolmeen and a resurgent St Breckan’s. Those two will be fancied to come out to the next stage.