*Huw Lawlor claims the ball above Peter Duggan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
Along with a huge Clare crowd, I travelled to Dublin in expectation of a win rather than hoping for one. The mood before the game was confident, although as word circulated of John Conlon’s injury there was a note of apprehension.
Clare looked sluggish in the quarter final versus Wexford but once they had gotten over that game we assumed that the hangover from the Munster Final was now gone. We expected a performance in Croke Park similar to what we had seen in our Munster championship clashes. However, within minutes of the throw in it was clear that Clare were fighting an uphill battle.
Kilkenny have to be given huge credit for their performance. They entered in the rare position of underdogs and played the game on their own terms throughout, pressured Clare into hitting awful ball into the forwards, and cut off all space at the back. Clare struggled to get a foothold and win any ball close to the Kilkenny goal. Long, high ball was delivered to Clare forwards whose markers were tigerish and relished the aerial contest. Clare defenders got no reprieve from the pressure they were under as ball was coming back quicker than it had been delivered in in the first place.
Clare management identified the full forward line as a problem given possession was not sticking inside and Kilkenny defenders were mopping up all the breaks. Ian Galvin was a little hard done by to be taken off very early in the game. Ian was Clare’s best forward against Wexford and there was a number of other Clare forwards who were underperforming against Kilkenny. It would have served Clare better to play just two inside forwards and bring an extra man out to midfield to get a foothold in the game there. I would also have liked to see Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell switched to see if a different approach to our inside line may have borne more fruit.
Clare were successful earlier in the season by supporting the man on the ball, running the ball and creating overlaps which resulted in great scoring opportunities. The lack of energy and desire to support the man on the ball led to players taking on shots under pressure the never looked likely to be scored. Clare racked up a massive wide tally but it would be misleading to say that inaccuracy alone was the issue for Clare. Clare’s shot selection was awful and many of those wides never looked close to being scored. It seemed as though our defenders were taking on the bulk of the shots on from distance when the aim should always be to create scoring chances for your forwards. One player who showed the dynamism that was needed was David Fitzgerald, he took on Kilkenny backs and created chances, but all too often he was fighting a lone battle in the middle of the park.
John Conlon’s absence was a major talking point and was sure to have had an affect on preparations. John has established himself in his role at centre back and the surrounding players are used to having him there as an experienced, physical presence. It was always going to be a huge ask for Páidí Fitzpatrick to step into his shoes in such a big game in Croke Park. Páidí had not been played in any of the previous championship outings this year and to be tasked with stepping into an All-Ireland semi-final without having championship exposure to date was a little unfair.
After a championship in which there was such positive displays and hope for Clare hurling, it was a real downer to finish the year. Clare peaked for their Munster Final clash and came up just short. Since that game they have been on a downward slide and didn’t get near to competing at the same level versus Wexford and Kilkenny. As a group they will have to identify why that happened so that is can be improved upon. The psychology of sport is amazing: Clare matched Limerick score for score in an epic but finished up marginally on the wrong side of the result. If they had won that game would we have seen the same depletion of energy reserves since then?
It’s also possible that the physical toll of those games was just too much for the players. Clare played at an intensity this year that they had not come close to in years. They were able to raise their game to allow them to compete with the best in the country in Munster but perhaps it was never going to be possible to maintain that level for the duration of the championship. If that is the case, this year should stand to them in their development. They should be stronger and fitter as a result and should be able to build on it for next season.
The group have given the Clare public some great days this summer and we should be proud of them. While it has ended in a bitterly disappointing and deflating fashion, there are green shoots of hope there and we will all be hoping that it will lead to more successful years in the near future under Brian Lohan’s leadership.