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*Cathal O’Connor has been a welcome addition to the Banner midfield. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Last weekend, both the Clare hurlers and Clare footballers displayed the ancient indomitable spirit and fortitude of the Dalcassian tribe. Whilst the hurlers were desperately unlucky to not come out on top of a titanic struggle with Limerick in Semple Stadium the footballers dug deep to edge out the Royal County in Cusack Park, Ennis.

Not long after the footballer’s victory, former Roscommon and Carlow coach, Steven Poacher tweeted the following about Colm Collins which summed up the Clare manager and his charges; “Colm Collins is not complaining about disparities in the province or crying about lack of size, finance, dual county etc., he has his own house in order, maximising all his resources and doing a fantastic job”. The Down native also went on to praise Billy Lee for doing a similar job with Limerick and getting the best out of whatever resources and players are available to them both. In beating Meath, Clare took down one of the traditional powerhouses of Gaelic football with seven All-Ireland senior titles to their credit with no little spirit or determination.

So let’s put this victory into context. Firstly, the win over Meath was Clare’s first triumph over the Royal county in 40 years. It can be argued that Meath are a shadow of the team that won their last All-Ireland in 1999 but they were still a Division 1 team in 2020 and had beaten Clare in their last five meetings with Clare under Colm Collins’ watch. Secondly, Clare are now in the last twelve of the All-Ireland football championship, no mean feat considering the fact that reigning All-Ireland champions, Tyrone have already been eliminated from the competition at this stage. Thirdly, Clare football needed a boost after their disappointing defeat to Limerick in their recent Munster quarter-final. This would have been a chastening experience for all concerned but the players responded, as management would have hoped, with a display of character and determination against Meath.

Ironically, Clare are now in the same position as Limerick but are coming into the next qualifier with a win under their belts. Whereas, Limerick and Clare’s next opponents Roscommon, are coming into the weekend encounters off the back of defeats in their respective Munster and Connacht finals.

The game against Meath was not of the highest quality in many respects, with packed defences, missed chances and turnovers being the order of the day. However, this will not unduly concern the Clare players or management who will feel that the result was the only thing that mattered with plenty of ‘works-ons’ for the coming week. Some Clare supporters (and football supporters in general) would like to see a more expansive style of play but the reality is that you must cut your cloth according to the quality of material that you have available to you. What is really encouraging about this Clare team is that they are playing to their strengths in terms of their defensive system, disciplined tackling and a possession game based on hard running and good support play off the shoulder.

Clare custodian, Tristan O’ Callaghan was solid throughout despite one misdirected short kickout to Meath dangerman Cillian O ‘Sullivan who managed to get a point from that play. Overall,Clare were very stable defensively and comfortably dealt with the attacking threat of the aforementioned Cillian O ‘Sullivan, Bryan Menton and the attacking wing-back Donal Keoghan.

Manus Doherty and Ciaran Russell win back possession. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Ciaran Russell and Cian O’Dea were once again to the fore with Clare’s half back line attacking at pace and running good angles at every available opportunity. Special mention must go to Manus Doherty for his last-ditch tackle on Donal Keoghan who was through on goal when the game was in the melting pot. Doherty could have easily fouled the in-rushing player but he displayed great skill and discipline to dispossess the Meath man and prevent a certain goal opportunity. For good measure, Doherty made a great sally up the field to kick the insurance point in added-time typifying the Clare spirit and never say die attitude on the day.

Meath had obviously planned to finish the game with their strongest attacking options as they brought on established players like the Wallace brothers and Jordan Morris to see the game out but it was Clare who finished the stronger team with Podge Collins, Keelan Sexton along with Cillian and Brendan Rouine all contributing impressively.

Cathal O Connor and Darren O’Neill gave Clare a good platform at midfield with O’Connor a welcome addition after his recent injury issues saw him miss the Limerick game. His physical presence and experience give Clare a lot more options to go long from kickouts and take the pressure off the backs who may otherwise have to carry the ball through heavy traffic.

The Clare forwards will know that they will have to be more clinical in front of goal the next day out against Roscommon. Clare had a number of bad wides and poor shot executions despite being on top, especially at the start of the second half. A missed penalty could also have proven to be costly but Clare will be happy they finished the game strongly as Meath were also guilty of wasting a lot of scoring opportunities.

If Clare want to progress further in this competition they will need to be getting up towards at least 60% in their shooting efficiency if they want to compete in the scoring stakes with the better teams.

On a positive note, it is good to see that Clare are creating plenty of point and goal scoring opportunities, they just need to be more efficient with their angles of shooting from the correct areas in Croke Park.

On a downbeat note Clare appeared to pick up injuries on their last outing to Alan Sweeney and Aaron Griffin. This is not ideal preparation as both are very adaptable to Clare’s hard running and possession game. Hopefully, they will be able to make the teamsheet for the weekend along with the ever dependable, Cillian Brennan. Injuries are an inevitable consequence of the new condensed format. It was great to see Cillian Rouine and Keelan Sexton coming off the bench after recent injuries and Sexton hit a wonderful ‘45 to put Clare a point up after the goalie had diverted his previous goal effort past the post when taking a point would possibly have been the wiser option in the circumstance.

A showdown with Roscommon is next on the agenda. While supporters of both teams might have favoured a neutral venue like Salthill, the players themselves will welcome the opportunity of playing at HQ with open arms. Roscommon will be disappointed with their lacklustre performance in their recent loss to Galway in the Connacht final but it must be remembered that they were only recently crowned Division 2 champions with victory over the same opposition with newly crowned Ulster champions, Derry only managing third place in this division.

Roscommon have plenty of scoring threats up front with quality forwards like Conor Cox, the Murtagh brothers along with Donie and Enda Smith who will all need close attention. Cox is a reliable free taker who will punish any Clare ill-discipline in defence. In theory Roscommon should be a level above Meath where the wide open spaces of Croke Park should suit their style of play. Clare will need to be aware of their scoring potential but the Clare forward line will also cause the Rossies backline plenty of problems especially if a few key forwards can ‘click’ on the day.

Clare will relish the opportunity of taking down another perceived ’big gun’ and getting to this year’s All- Ireland quarter final which is a massive prize for both counties. Both teams are familiar with each other by now and neither Anthony Cunningham nor Colm Collins will take the other side for granted.

One thing that we know about these Clare players is that they will give everything for the cause when they run onto pitch in Croke Park. These lads love putting on the Clare jersey and representing their families, their clubs and their friends.

Dual star, Podge Collins summed up Clare’s defiant attitude the last day when he went and fetched a high ball even though he was surrounded by three Meath players to the delight of the home support. Clare supporters can show the same famed Clare spirit as their hurlers and footballers by getting to Croke Park on Saturday at 3.45pm and giving their county team the support they need and deserve.

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