There was almost a sense of inevitability when Kildare eventually overcame chief Leinster rivals Wexford to cement their place against Clare in the All-Ireland Intermediate Ladies Football Final in Croke Park this Sunday.
After all, the hand of fate had thrown up a potential revenge mission for the Banner who had agonisingly missed their chance at intermediate glory in the 2016 decider against the Lilywhites. More than that though, having been contentiously edged out twice by Kildare already in 2023 alone including an extra-time National League Division 3 Final reverse back in April, it’s easy to see why Clare are hell bent on redressing the balance.
However, the final ingredient of Clare’s date with destiny is the fact that Clare Manager Wayne Freeman and his immediate backroom team of Lee Hunt and Brian Willis are all Kildare natives, albeit that their residency permits could be in jeopardy as the banter levels have intensified over the past three weeks.
“I’ve been told by plenty of people at home that they won’t be supporting me so that’s always a good start.” Joked Freeman. “My answer to that is that I can’t wait to se your faces when we do beat you [Kildare].
“Look the end of the day, it’s not just the counties that are against each other but the teams. In truth, losing the National League Final [to Kildarel] hurt us, It really did. People often play up the impact and disappointment but it really did hurt us as we had played quite well and they [Kildare] stayed in the game because of the mistakes from us before just pouncing on us at the end of extra-time to edge it.
“That game could have either way as we were good enough on the day to win it and even looking back on it now, I felt that we were the better team overall but just let it slip. So it did hurt us and probably drove us on for the All-Ireland Championship.
‘I didn’t expect them to lose and I didn’t expect us to lose either so I’m looking forward to it to be honest with you as we all wanted to play Kildare again. You want to be testing yourself against the best teams so it’s going to be a great day out on Sunday.’
“The Munster campaign in the middle allowed us to settle back down again. Players got minutes that needed minutes and some players got a break than needed one so it gave us a really good chance to get into the team that little bit more and see what they needed personally over that time.
“But also winning that Munster Senior B was huge and I don’t think at the time that the players fully understood how important it was for the group as it actually kicked us on. We were able to go out and have a few drinks and celebrate together as a team so it kind of galvanised us further for the All-Ireland Championship.
“I think we’ve had a really good championship. I think we’ve been really impressive and are progressively getting better with every game as well which is important. I mean at every stage, the opposition has been tougher but we stepped up to every challenge and seem to be getting better.
“I often say to the girls that they invariably play better against better teams because they’re so focused.
“I would have put money on Kildare getting to the All-Ireland Final so long as we didn’t meet them along the way so I kind of fancied the two of us to be there in Croke Park provided there wasn’t a big upset along the way.
“I didn’t expect them to lose and I didn’t expect us to lose either so I’m looking forward to it to be honest with you as we all wanted to play Kildare again. You want to be testing yourself against the best teams so it’s going to be a great day out on Sunday.
“Overall the entire year has been really enjoyable, especially the last few weeks which has been really rewarding but I’ve enjoyed the whole journey to be honest about it.”
Such contentment certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Freeman who had applied for the Clare job based on their 2022 exploits to push eventual champions Laois all the way to extra-time at the penultimate stage. However, upon his arrival, the reality of the Clare landscape was certainly different as the new manager was without up of half of the team from the previous campaign for a variety of reasons.
“I’ve no doubt that at the beginning of the year, some of the players who were there last year would have looked in and said what can we do? I mean there were big names that had left but I remember after our first trial in Caherlohan, I turned around to the lads and said ‘we have the talent here without a doubt.’ I saw that we had better technical players that we did in Louth, had the athletes to go into the right positions and we already had in our heads a couple of players that we felt we might change their position to suit the way we wanted to play as well.
“So they actually all worked out, Cliodhna [Blake] moving to midfield was the big one as she’s had a great year, Louise [Griffin] moving back to wing-back from the forwards, just little things like that. I think the Kildare game in Cooraclare was probably the real starting point for us because we had been dreadful against Wexford in the second half at the same venue a week earlier. We had a little heart-to-heart after the Wexford game so against Kildare, again we should have won it only for a square ball to be given against us that was a brutal call, but we played really well.
“Then the Down game was probably a little bit of a borefest but looking back on that game, we totally dominated and kept them scoreless for almost 40 minutes but just kicked too many wides.
“So we were starting to show in that early part of the year some real signs of progress as we had gotten used to the system so by the time we played Longford, everything just clicked.
“So it was that initial game against Kildare that I felt was the turning point because the players themselves had the talk in the dressing rooms afterwards and they themselves were saying that ‘we have the bones of a really good team here and we can do this but we just need to believe in each other a little more.’
In the absence of previous talismanic figures such as Niamh O’Dea, Grainne Nolan and Ellis O’Gorman, younger players had to step up and take on that responsibility which has been the main of this team according to Freeman.
“Caoimhe [Harvey] was probably a huge loss last year. She’s a great leader, really steers the group well and drives them around the pitch well so it was great to get her back number one. Making Sinead [Considine] and Chloe [Moloney] vice-captains provided them with a voice, then Fidelma [Marrinan] stepped up too as regards her voice within the room too.
“Her maturity on the field has also been a major factor. Of course as a forward she wants to get on the scoreboard but she was also very unselfish against Antrim in the way she approached the game as well. So lots of the players have matured over the year but I think a lot of it is down to relationships. I’ve a good relationship with them and I feel that they can come and talk to me about anything.
“We all want to work for each other, the players want to fight for each other, you can see that in the dressing room and feel that on the pitch that they work so hard for each other. If a mistake happens, you can see the intent of other players trying to fix the problem. So there’s a desperate desire to go and work for one another so I think that’s the major factor of how we actually got to the final.
“Look, it did take time to build up that trust. I mean it takes time for anyone to trust anyone in life. The dynamic of the group was probably a bit tricky at the start of the year from the players point of view and that’s totally understandable. I mean we’ve 14 new players in the panel that weren’t there last year so that’s an incredible turnover.
“There was probably an element of freshness too for them to say that ‘I can start again here as he’s not going to judge me from previous games.’
“I was obviously here with Louth last year but we never looked back on any of it, it was always about now and the present. Taking every game as it comes, analysing every game as we go and see how we progress then as a group.
“The maturity of the group is epitomised by how we now manage games. Our game management has gone to the next level. I think you can see that especially with the two yellow cards in previous games how we just killed the game for those ten minutes. We actually kept the ball with a payer less under serious pressure so little things like that have gone a long way.”
Having remoulded Clare’s flagship side, the only remaining lingering doubt is the Croke Park factor which unquestionably played a major part in the Banner’s stuttering start to what would turn out to be a memorable All-Ireland Premier Junior Camogie Final against Tipperary last Sunday.
“The mental side of the game is something that we gotten good at. We’ve had a number of speakers in that regard including Gary Brennan and Eoin Cleary most recently so the players have really enjoyed that and taken a good bit from them.
“I think over the course of the year, we’ve had set-backs and they’ve learned from them and become stronger because of them but I’ve always said that they should be embracing all of this and shouldn’t be hiding.
“I mean the whole media side of things has gone through the roof in the last few weeks and maybe some of the players were saying ‘should I speak to them or not?’ So I’ve told them that if you’re asked and you want to speak to them go and speak with them. And if you do an interview, enjoy it because these days don’t come around very often.
“Within the group we’ve always talked about performing and not worrying about the scoreboard. Performances is everything so when we got to Croke Park, we won’t be putting on the brakes, we’ll be more going the other way. So if we lose, we’ll do so trying to win it because I just feel that if we go into our shells, that’s where it becomes a chess game and you just don’t know who’s going to win it.
“I feel that if we can play to our values and the way we want to play which is attacking from 2 to 15, I think that gives us the best chance but it also knocks the nerves out of you quite early because you’re going for it.
“You have that kind of set mentality of when the ball’s thrown up, we’re going to go for it and don’t have any negative thoughts towards it but look, we can only do so much planning.
“I mean, Mike Tyson had the saying that everyone has a plan until they get a punch in the face so well get punched in the face several times on Sunday and I just hope that we can deal with it.
“I think they can.”
And Kildare will receive their fair share of punches too no doubt?
“Absolutely, many more times hopefully.”