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This Sporting Life – Thursday February 14th 2019

There have been many obituaries written in memory of the great game of Gaelic football over the last few years.
Pundits have lamented the seemingly long forgotten days of the catch and kick game that brought the likes of Mick O’Connell, the Bomber Liston and the mighty Tom Morrissey to prominence.
Gone, we are told, are the days when the game was played out between 30 men who would fight to the death in a survival of the fittest. The emergence of the hand-pass and the blanket defence have left many pining for the days of old, with the roar of “let it in” ever more prominent now at games.
Such was the clamour to end the dark practice of possession based football, the GAA trialled their ill-fated three hand-pass rule which thankfully never saw the light of day again after the pre-season competitions had ended this year.
I think everyone will agree that the last three or four years has seen more tinkering with the rules of Gaelic football than had been the case for the previous 100. The mark, forward only sidelines, black cards, sin-bins,  forcing kickouts to go long, the list just goes on. So why is this happening? We are told the reason is to make the game attractive again, to compete with its hurling counterpart for the affection of the crowds, and to save young lads from eternal damnation as a sweeper.
Speaking on the Champion Sports Chat podcast this week (which you can hear right now on iTunes or the Clare Champion website and social media channels), former Clare manager Micheá-l McDermott made an interesting point about this very issue. The Cavan man pondered as to why the GAA are so aggressive in changing rules, but so slow to change the structures? Anyone who has followed the National Football League in the last few weeks will have been enthralled by the games that have unfolded, and not just from a Clare point of view.
Across the divisions, there have been thrills and spills with teams dropping points left, right and centre as the tables start to take shape. Mayo and Kerry are looking good in the top tier, any one of the teams (bar Cork) are still dreaming of promotion from Division Two, while Division Three and Four are equally as competitive. Why is that? It’s simple. Teams are operating at their level, and it’s leading to competitive games and a competition that you can actually sustain a level of interest in.
Let’s call a spade a spade here. The All-Ireland football championship as it stands is a cod. The provincials are tired and boring and not fit for purpose. Clare will play Waterford for the chance to face Kerry in a Munster semi-final. Again. I still think we will win that game, but that’s not the point right now. Dublin will walk through Leinster, while Connacht will likely be between Mayo and Galway. Ulster is the only province that is likely to be competitive. The time for a tiered open All-Ireland championship is now.
Imagine the games you could have if the National league format was applied to the championship, and played in the summer months. A competitive championship with home and away ties where teams are actually competing at their level would be surely worth trialling. To go back to Micheál’s point, the GAA seem to be willing to try everything bar the only move that could make a discernible difference. Why not move the provincial championships to the start of the year and play them on a knock-out basis as a stand-alone competition? The rules of Gaelic football are not the issue, that much is clear.
It will take bravery and leadership for someone to put their head over the parapet and demand the change. Gaelic football needs it.
Clare football is on the crest of a wave right now. Three points from the opening three games in Division Two, and suddenly the word promotion is starting to be whispered in hushed tones. Donegal came to Ennis and were lucky to escape with the points. Clare went to a frozen Newry and brought a well earned point back with them. Cork, who are one of the “so-called” big two in Munster, left Cusack Park with their tail firmly between their legs as the search for Corkness goes on.
All that being said, Sunday was a huge disappointment for one reason. Just over 1,100 people made their way through the turnstiles to watch a Clare team who are producing some of the best football that any squad in the county has played in a long time, if not ever. Why is that? Clare spent long enough traipsing around the country in Division Four to tough venues like Fraher Field, Dr Cullen Park and Aughrim, but those days are long gone. There is a core support for Clare football who made all those journeys too, and are now basking in the sunshine of the second tier.
It just amazes me though as to why the GAA public in Clare are not rowing in unison behind this team. I know we have spoken before about the cost of going to these games and I’m sure that’s a factor. It is just a real pity that the level of support afforded to the hurlers doesn’t seem to transfer to the big ball too. Clare have one home game left in the National League campaign, and it will be a vital one against Meath on Saturday March 16th. The Banner roar can make all the difference so hopefully that’s the day we will see the Park rocking. It’s the least the lads deserve.
Clare will feel like they owe Cork one.
 I’m sure the 2018 Munster final will be a game that annoys many of this Clare team. Seven points up after a rip-roaring first 30 minutes, Cork got a goal just before half-time and it felt as if they were going in level despite being four points down. In the second half, Cork outplayed the Banner in the summer sun and despite the two-point margin, the Rebels were value for more. The goal just before half-time seemed to wipe away any dominance Clare had in the first half. John Conlon had terrorised Cork’s full-back line and Clare were on top all over the field.
For some reason Clare were a shadow of themselves in the second half and Cork grew in momentum as each minute passed. Clare are a far better team than that second half performance and they will be eager to showcase this in Páirc Uí Rinn this Saturday, and I believe they will.
Cork have accounted for Clare in the last two Munster finals and also in the round robin of the 2018   Munster championship, it is time the favour is returned now. On recent form, there is no reason that Clare don’t go to Cork and come back with two points, but Cork is never an easy place to go.
After two defeats, the citizens of their self-proclaimed republic are likely to be out in force to fill Páirc Uí Rinn and create a hostile atmosphere for the Banner and aid their wounded rebels in their quest to put their first points on the board.
Tony Kelly returning to the fold will be a welcome bonus for Clare and the former All-Star will be keen to make up for lost time having played only 40 minutes of league action so far.
With Shane Golden in cracking form and Colm Galvin turning in an exemplary display against Kilkenny, the Banner will look to establish a foothold in midfield from which to punish Cork, as they did effectively against Kilkenny.
Cork have been short their talisman Seamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan still hasn’t returned to the fold, while they have also been experimenting with Tim O’Mahony at centre-back. Cork’s UCC contingent will also have bigger fish to fry on Saturday week in the Fitzgibbon Cup final so there are many pointers to suggest that this is the perfect time to send a message to Cork that their mini period of success against the Banner is over and that they are in for the battle of a lifetime when they roll into Ennis for the Munster championship on June 16.
Clare’s new additions have bolstered their attacking options quite well in 2019 so far and they will be looking to make an impact once more to entrench their positions in the matchday squads ever more, with one eye on the middle of May.
Both Diarmuid Ryan and Colin Guilfoyle registered scores against Kilkenny and will be hoping they are looked upon to don the Saffron and Blue this weekend and lead the Banner to a rare victory on the banks of the Lee.

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