*Ciaran Russell is among the players not available for Clare boss Mark Fitzgerald. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

MARK FITZGERALD’s first Allianz National Football League campaign as Clare manager begins in earnest this Sunday when they welcome Sligo to Cusack Park.

Fitzgerald and his management team of Declan Downes, James Costelloe and Seanie Buckley (coach) have their side prepared for Division 3, Clare’s seven year stint in the second tier ended following last year’s relegation.

This task is made more difficult by the fact that twelve experienced members of last year’s panel will not be involved with Clare this year.

Inter-county retirements have been announced by Ciaran Russell, Podge Collins and Cathal O’Connor.

Russell who made his Clare senior football debut in March 2014 when Clare defeated Carlow 3-21 2-10 in the sixth round of the Allianz National Football League, a result that helped to seal their promotion from Division 4 to Division 3. Over the subsequent decade, Ciaran became an indispensable member of Colm Collins’ side and was an automatic first choice for inclusion in the half-back line.

Ciaran established himself as a regular starter in 2015 before bowing out of the panel in 2016 but returned for the 2017 campaign. His ability was also visible at club level, serving as a pivotal figure in Éire Óg winning back to back senior football championships in 2021 and 2022 while for the 2019 season his ability to gain a starting spot in a highly competitive Kilmacud Crokes side when he was based in the capital also demonstrated this ability.

Podge first joined the senior football panel in 2012 but left that season to concentrate on inter-county hurling commitments, he returned to the football panel in 2015, a year later his efforts to combine playing senior inter-county at both codes was one of the most discussed stories of the summer. In 2017, the Cratloe man committed solely to the county hurlers. Following the conclusion of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor’s term as senior hurling managers in 2019, Podge left the hurling panel and has concentrated solely on football in saffron and blue from then until his retirement at the end of the 2023 season.

A fourteen year involvement with the county seniors ended for Coolmeen’s O’Connor with his decision to retire, for two of those years he commuted from Edinburgh to represent his county. The thirty four year old made his debut in the 2009 National Football League, playing under four managers, Frank Doherty, Micheál McDermott, Mick O’Dwyer and Colm Collins.

At midfield, O’Connor had a formidable partnership with All Star nominee Gary Brennan. Clare’s memorable 2022 qualifier win over Roscommon which saw them advance to the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals saw Cathal awarded the man of the match accolade. He had been the longest-serving member of the county panel.

Eoin Cleary announced in August that he would be taking a year out from inter-county action. He had been sidelined for over thirteen weeks with osteitis pubis last year which restricted him from training and from lining out with Clare in their final two championship games. The Miltown Malbay native recently married his long-term partner, Colette Keniry and the couple plan to spend this summer travelling.

Since making his inter-county debut for the Clare seniors in 2014, Eoin has played 85 games between league and championship, racking up a personal tally of 4-334. His exit means Fitzgerald will have to appoint a new captain. Cleary has not ruled out making an inter-county return in the future.

Jamie Malone who also made his debut in the same year as Clare is another significant departure from the squad. An All Star nominee in 2019, Jamie is similarly set for a stint travelling abroad which prompts his exit.

Malone’s ability to kick vital clutch scores for his county will be missed. The primary school teacher landed winning championship scores for Clare against Roscommon (2022) and Limerick (2021) while his score against Louth in the opening round of the 2023 National Football League saw Clare go in front for the first time at the death to defeat the then Mickey Harte managed side.

Emigration has hit the county panel with three regular starters now based in the United States of America. Cian O’Dea relocated to the States in the aftermath of Clare’s All-Ireland SFC loss to Donegal where he has taken up a three-year coaching post with New York GAA. The Kilfenora native had his season disrupted last year after sustaining a knee-ligament injury. He made his first championship appearance as a sub in the 2015 Munster semi-final loss to Cork and was a central figure in the county’s seven year stay in Division 2.

Pearse Lillis has also been based in the US since the summer. The Cooraclare man made his senior debut in the 2016 National Football League when Clare started their Division 3 campaign with a 1-11 0-7 win over Sligo in Hennessy Memorial Park in Miltown Malbay. Over the subsequent seven years, his role on the side continued to grow and it is accepted that he was one of Clare’s best performers in last year’s championship. The twenty five year old had been most comfortable in either the half-back and half-forward lines during Collins’ tenure.

Awarded the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for April last year, Keelan Sexton is also now living in the Big Apple. He kicked 1-10 in the 2023 Munster championship as Clare reached their first provincial decider in eleven years. In 2015, the Kilmurry Ibrickane attacker played minor, U21 and senior for his county all in the one season and is likely to be one of the last GAA players to achieve such a feat.

Éire Óg’s Darren O’Neill has also informed management he will not be involved with the county in 2024. Notably ten years separated O’Neill’s first and second championship appearance in the Clare colours, he made his debut in 2011 for the Munster quarter-final defeat to Cork and his second championship outing was another provincial quarter-final loss, this time in 2021 to Kerry. Following Gary Brennan’s retirement, Darren became the first choice-partner for Cathal O’Connor in the centre of the field until Darragh Bohannon began to seriously press for a starting berth last season.

Fellow Ennis native, Gavin Cooney who left the Clare panel in May following the five point All-Ireland SFC loss to Donegal has not returned to the set-up. Instead, the two-time winning Clare SFC captain has emigrated to Australia where he arrived earlier this month.

Substitute goalkeeper David Sexton who made his league debut last year has decided not to return to the county squad. The Kilmurry Ibrickane netminder made two appearances in last year’s league run before Stephen Ryan returned between the posts to cement his place as first choice keeper.

Eoghan Collins had the distinction of being the only member of last year’s panel to not play his club football in Clare has called time on his career in saffron and blue. The Mayo native who is a nephew of Colm Collins made his first appearance for Clare in 2017 during a McGrath Cup win over Waterford in Meelick. The Ballyhaunis dual-player had to give up his career as a Mayo hurler in order to represent Clare, he had won a Nicky Rackard Cup with Mayo in 2016. His father John is a Kilmihil native.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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