*Eoin Cleary leading the Clare footballers into battle. Photograph: Burren Eye Photography
THIS SUNDAY, Clare are back in their first provincial final since 2012 with the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick the appointed venue after the Munster Council rejected Clare’s proposal for a home venue in Cusack Park , Ennis.
The choice of venue is a little disappointing but not surprising as the Clare football team wouldn’t be too high up on the priority list of the Munster Council. A home venue for the final would have given the local economy a boost and would have engendered great excitement in the county town with the novelty of the whole occasion for supporters in particular.
In saying all that the decision on where the match will be staged will not duly concern the Clare management or players as they will be fully focused on the task ahead of them as they attempt to add a third provincial title to Clare football’s list of honours.
Clare will go into this game as massive underdogs with Kerry 1/66 in one leading bookmakers. Kerry are reigning All-Ireland champions and will be expected to win this game by at least ten points or more after beating Tipperary in the semi-final by twenty points, 0-25 to 0-05. But sport doesn’t always work out this way and that is the joy of the challenge that is facing Clare.
In some ways, Clare have had the perfect preparation for this final in comparison to Kerry. After their historic win over Cork, everyone will now have their feet back on terra firma after their stuttering but resilient win over near neighbours, Limerick. While Clare were doing battle with Cork in Cusack Park, Kerry were away on a warm weather training camp in Quinta do Lago in Portugal. This highlights in many ways the chasm that exists between the top six teams in the country and the chasing pack in terms of their financial resources and their professional approach.
In contrast, Colm Collins has assembled a really tight and quality backroom team with limited resources, making this on paper a real David versus Goliath clash. Kerry will try and talk up Clare and mention a few key players but within the county they will expect to brush the Clare challenge aside with the minimum of fuss and this could play into Clare hands. I read recently that Kerry had beaten Tipperary in their last 45 or so championship meetings and you would wonder why the GAA and the Munster Council aren’t doing everything in their powers to create a more level playing field, especially for dual counties, in terms of competing with a superpower like Kerry. The underdog should be given home advantage whenever possible but that is before political and economic realities come into play and a county like Clare are expected to just get on with it and not be seen to be complaining or whinging. This is just another reason to create a siege mentality going into this final.
Kerry are the kingpins of Munster and All-Ireland football for a reason. They absolutely love their Gaelic Football throughout the entire county and young footballers dream of one day being a Kerry footballer and walking up the steps of Croke Park on All-Ireland final day and when you are consistently successful this makes it even easier to promote the game. They have high standards in Kerry and supporters in particular will demand an All-Ireland title every year while their management teams and players will do everything in their power to fulfil these ambitions.
A Munster medal in Kerry is often seen as a means to an end with the All-Ireland being the real end goal for all involved. Kerry have won twelve out of the last thirteen provincial titles and are as dominant in Munster as Dublin are in Leinster. It remains to be seen if the provincial crown will continue to be a main priority for the top teams with the All-Ireland series just around the corner but then again no one likes losing, especially in the championship and especially in Kerry.
For counties on the periphery like Clare a provincial title still remains an attainable goal, just look at Tipperary in 2020 and would be celebrated just as much as an All-Ireland in the top counties in many respects. To be successful Clare will have to throw the kitchen sink at Kerry and be bold enough to make matters as uncomfortable as possible for the Kerry men and try to keep it as tight as possible and be still in the race coming down the final stretch.
This Banner team will relish the opportunity to have a real cut at Kerry. Clare in their history, have won two Munster senior football titles but they have never beaten both Cork and Kerry in the same year to claim the provincial crown.
In Clare’s first ever Munster victory in 1917, these great men beat Waterford and Tipperary in the early rounds before accounting for Cork in the final by 5-04 to 0-01. The team trained collectively in Kilkee for two weeks before the final and stayed in the Erin’s Arms Hotel. Local man,Jim Foran who was a great leader of men was the captain of the team and was ably assisted by trainer and fellow player Jim ’Sham’ Spellisey from Ennis.
In 1992, Clare played Tipperary narrowly beating them by four points in the semi-final before beating Kerry again by four points in the Munster final 2-10 to 0-12 which also took place in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. This was another team full of talented players and leaders no more so than the captain, Francis McInerney from Doonbeg, father of current Clare player, Mark. They were superbly managed and coached by John Maughan and were supremely fit and mentally resilient enough to take down the Kerry challenge.
This current crop of Clare players have plenty of experience of big matches, albeit not on Munster final day and they are ably led by their talented forward, Eoin Cleary from Miltown Malbay while Colm Collins continues to defy the odds and get the best out of each and every player that he has at his disposal. Clare have plenty of leaders as seen in their previous two championship matches and they will need all their willpower and resilience if they are to push Kerry to the pin of their collar on Sunday. Clare will need to be hitting all their key performance indicators and more in terms of shooting efficiency, tackles and turnovers if they are to be in with a shout. If they can keep the Kerry forwards at bay in terms of goal scoring chances and pinch a goal or two at the other end then this will help their cause no end in their chase for provincial honours.
The Winning Mindset:
As previously said Clare will be written off in all quarters but Colm Collins and his men will thrive on this and will see this as a great opportunity but they will know that they will have to take the chances that they are presented with. Undoubtedly, Kerry have match winners all over the pitch and they have an array of household names that would put the fear of god into any right minded corner back.
Clare though will focus on their own strengths and systems of play while trying to nullify and a number of key Kerry players who really make them tick. Kerry goalkeeper,Shane Ryan, who plays full forward with his club Rathmore has an effective short and long kickout strategy and is a good shot stopper. Clare may try and force him to go long with some kickouts and turn the middle third into a battle field like they did against Cork. If you consistently let Kerry go short with their kickouts there is a good chance that you will not be getting the ball back for prolonged periods and they will comfortably retain possession. Of course there is a risk in pressing the kickout as you may leave yourself open to the kick over the top but if you are going to compete with Kerry you will have to take calculated risks at the appropriate time and be tactically flexible in doing so.
Kerry haven’t yet proven that they have found a long term midfield replacement for the retired David Moran with the defensively minded Jack Barry and the more attack minded Diarmuid O’ Connor presently holding the fort. Tadhg Morley looks set to continue to play as the defensive sweeper with Jack Barry and the wing forwards often picking up his man so that he can drop into deeper defensive positions around the edge of the D. This has meant that the Kerry defence only conceded one goal in last year’s championship winning run and none so far in their first match against Tipperary this year. If Clare can get a runner on Morley then he could possibly do damage if the ball in is quick and incisive. If not, Kerry under Jack O’Connor and Paddy Tally are as adept at as any team in Ireland at slowing the play down high up the pitch and getting men behind the ball, turning it over and breaking at breakneck speed especially with the likes of Gavin White and Tom O’ Sullivan.
The Clare half backs are very similar in this regard but they will need their forwards to tackle tirelessly and aggressively higher up the pitch to stop quick ball going into the likes of Clifford and co. Hopefully Cillian Brennan and Manus Doherty will be passed fit as another of their potential man-markers, Cian O’Dea, looks set to be out for the long term. The Clare forwards have the potential to give the Kerry backs plenty to think about but will need to get the ball to the right men in the right areas to hurt Kerry. You would hope that referee Jerome Henry from Mayo will not be afraid to make the big calls if the game is in the melting pot.
Clare could well make use of the physicality around the middle third with players like Darren O’Neill, Cathal O’Connor and Darragh Bohannon all well able to fetch the high ball and they may even target the Kerry wing backs on some of their own kickouts.
Energy and Intensity:
In reality, Clare will need to bring their A game to Limerick as well as bringing lots of energy and intensity to proceedings. If they stand off Kerry and admire their opponents or lose concentration then it could be a long day at the office. However, if they can get up close and personal with their esteemed rivals then we could have a game on our hands.
Remember, this Clare team already have two championship games under their belt and are battle hardened whilst Kerry have had only had a canter out against Tipperary and unlike last year they didn’t set the world alight in this year’s league.
Jack O’Connor believes that he has more strength in depth to his panel this year but the Clare bench is deepening as well as the year goes which is encouraging. Clare will not be worried about past encounters between these two counties as Sunday is a one off match that can take on a life of its own. The history books have not yet been written on this final and there is a blank page for Clare to write their own conclusion.
Here’s hoping that a big Clare following will descend on the Gaelic Grounds at the weekend with plenty of colour and noise and be rightly proud of these young men who are wearing the Clare jersey with distinction and who have earned the right to take on their illustrious neighbours from across the River Shannon.
Go n-éirí an bóthar a bhuachaillí.