*Jamie Malone under pressure from Brian Donovan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
“When you’ve got something to prove there’s nothing greater than a challenge” – Terry Bradshaw.
Clare’s Munster championship semi-final match over Limerick was a must win fixture but one that was always going to be a tricky assignment. Make no mistake about it this was one of the most important victories that the Clare footballers have achieved in recent times as the stakes were so high and the prize of a provincial final awaiting the victors. Despite a few heart stopping moments in the closing stages, Clare achieved their double goal of qualifying for Tier 1 of the All-Ireland football championship as well as also qualifying for the Munster football final against Kerry on Sunday, the 7th of May.
This current crop of Clare players don’t win games the easy way but are definitely giving their loyal band of supporters plenty of value for money. Despite the public perception at times, Munster football championship games are hard won and hard fought and Clare have now won two on the bounce. It was very encouraging to see so many supporters from the Banner county make the short trip across the county border and they really got behind the team in that tense final quarter.
Clare were always going to struggle to come down from their heroics just two weeks previously. Limerick on the other hand were able to focus all their attention on either Clare or Cork for the last few weeks as they looked to salvage their Sam Maguire journey after their recent relegation from Division 2. Limerick certainly had studied Clare’s gameplan and pattern of plays as they targeted a number of Clare players for close attention with a view to stopping the Bannermen in their tracks. Jamie Malone was tagged throughout by Colm McSweeney as was Podge Collins and Eoin Cleary but they all made worthwhile contributions throughout.
In fact, Limerick were intent on doing to Clare what Clare had done to Cork in terms of frustrating them by getting a lot of bodies behind the ball and breaking at pace from the back. Clare had to show plenty of patience early on as they didn’t want to bring the ball into contact or play into the Limerick men’s hands. This game plan worked well for the home team for long periods and they were in the game right up to the final stages as momentum swung back and forth.
However, it was Clare who showed the greater character and resilience to wrestle momentum back from Limerick and finish the game strongly to the delight of the vociferous supporters and qualify for their first Munster final since 2012 when Micheál McDermott was in charge.
This time last year in their championship victory Limerick were the beneficiary of coming out on the right side of the small margins, this year it was Clare who profited. Clare started the game brightly and with intent with some good points and a great goal by Keelan Sexton which capped off some excellent build up play on the Mackey Stand side between Daniel Walsh and Pearse Lillis. After this score Clare wouldn’t score again for the next 12 minutes as Limerick regained a foothold in the game and Clare dropped off to soak up the Limerick pressure. However, despite having a lot of men behind the ball, often covering space rather than man marking, Clare were unable to prevent Limerick shots from distance from going over the bars as their midfielders Cillian Fahy and debutant Cathal Downes in particular were very efficient with their shooting. The other Limerick debutant wing back Barry Coleman also chipped in with two points.
Interestingly, the two opposing full-backs, Sean O’Dea and Cillian Brennan added points as the ball was recycled away from the packed defences. We are getting used to all teams now playing packed defences and Philly McMahon in a recent Irish Independent column said about the modern game, “We’re all playing Ulster football now”.
By half time Clare had managed to hold on to their one goal lead going in at the short whistle leading by 1-7 to 0-7. Clare were playing within themselves at this stage and were not playing with any great urgency or energy but were otherwise comfortable in many aspects of their play. The game had not really come to life yet but that was soon to change.
The Magnificent Seven:
Clare were able to extend the lead to four points on a number of occasions in the second half but at no time were they able to stretch it to five or six and put the game beyond the reach of the Limerick men. Suddenly, a few negative turnovers, some indiscipline in defence and injuries to key players Manus Doherty and Cillian Brennan saw Limerick hit five points in a row without reply and we now had a proper championship match coming into the final quarter. Clare were now forced to ring the changes due to injuries and the need for fresh legs as replacements were required to turn the tide of Limerick’s momentum.
Just as Lissycasey had seven representatives on the Clare minor football team that were very unlucky to narrowly lose against Limerick in midweek, Éire Óg also had seven representatives in the equivalent senior encounter on Saturday evening with Manus Doherty and Ciaran Russell both starting while Ronan Lanigan, Darren O’Neill, Gavin Cooney,Ikem Ugwueru and Mark McInerney were all introduced to proceedings and made notable contributions when the game was in the melting pot.
Limerick actually went a point ahead on the home stretch as the controlled and cautious systems of play which had been the hallmarks of play from both sides during the early exchanges was now replaced with a sense of controlled chaos as the play shifted from end to end with both teams throwing caution to the wind.
As Limerick tried to break for home a couple of outrageous scores from Keelan Sexton off his left foot summed up Clare’s never say die attitude. Clare by now had pushed up on Limerick keeper Donal O’Sullivan’s kickout forcing him to go long on a number of occasions where Clare and Cathal O’Connor in particular were breaking the ball and winning the exchanges on the ground thereafter. This meant that Clare did not have to retreat as deep when not in possession and they could press Limerick higher up in the pitch.
One of the key turning points in the game occurred in a three minute period. Limerick had missed a scorable mark through the impressive Hugh Bourke but it was the game deciding save by Stephen Ryan that turned the game on its head. Limerick full forward, Brian Donovan got in behind the Clare defence on 66 minutes and could have tapped it over for the equaliser but he went for a piledriver which the reliable Ryan stopped at close range.
Clare subsequently tidied up the left overs and counter attacked up the field to score a wonderful point and went two ahead instead of being two behind-small margins. Clare pushed on from this point on to finish strongly.
Meeting the Challenge:
This was one game where the stakes were so high that the result and not the performance was the only thing that mattered. Clare will take plenty of positives from the game but they will also know that they have lots of room for improvements in a number of different areas. The Clare brains trust will be delighted with their game management and guile that they have shown in their last two championship matches when the games were in the melting pot. They have taken on two completely different challenges and passed both tests with flying colours. Remember, not so long ago in the league Clare were losing these close matches so you have to give great credit to the players and management for turning this around.
This latest tense and tight championship game will do wonders for the team’s belief and confidence and should stand them in good stead when the Munster final and the round-robin kicks in.
Clare had four defenders who scored from play and five of the starting forwards who also scored making it nine scorers in total which is an excellent spread. Clare will have learned plenty about themselves and the leadership and bravery shown by a host of players including Keelan Sexton, Ciaran Russell, Jamie Malone and Cathal O’Connor to mention but a few in the final quarter ensured that Clare were not going to be caught in the Limerick headlights for two years in a row. Clare finished the game in style with super scores from Eoin Cleary, Emmet McMahon, Cillian Rouine and Daniel Walsh. When Clare ran hard at Limerick from all sorts of angles in those final few minutes they had no real answer to them.
By virtue of their win over Limerick, Clare have now qualified to meet Kerry in the Munster final which we will preview in next week’s column. Kerry of course are the standard bearers in Munster but under the new structures Clare are no longer imprisoned by the old provincial system whereby before the introduction of the ‘back-door system’ in 2001 you had to win your provincial final to advance to the semi-final of the All-Ireland series.
Clare will be able to able to have a right cut at this Munster final with the knowledge that they will have the All-Ireland Tier 1 qualifier games two to three weeks afterwards regardless of the result. The Munster final will be an occasion to savour for all Clare GAA fans and the players and management will be hoping to emulate the great men of 1917 and 1992 but for now they are there on merit after beating Limerick and Cork and that’s all that matters.