*Colm Collins and Eoin Cleary celebrate beating Cork in this year’s Munster SFC. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Last Saturday evening’s loss to Derry in Pearse Park, Longford signalled the end of Clare’s involvement in the race for Sam Maguire for 2023.

However, just as noteworthy it heralded the end of an era as Ireland’s current longest serving manager Colm Collins brought the curtain down on an extraordinary ten year managerial career at the helm of the Clare football team which brought Clare players and supporters to places that they had only dreamed of previously.

Derry Again:

Taking on Derry for the fourth time in fifteen months was always a tall order especially as Derry were determined to top Group 4 and go through as group winners to avoid a potentially tricky preliminary quarter-final, whereas Clare were out of the running and were unable to progress further in the competition.

Clare who had previously been beaten by twelve points on average in their recent encounters with Derry were on a hiding to nothing and it would have been very easy to go through the motions and let the match play out as it would. However this bunch of Clare players refused to let that happen and their pride of playing for the Clare jersey along with doing justice to their management and coaching teams was evident for all in Longford to witness as Derry were made to earn every bit of their six point victory.

By the end of the match the Ulstermen knew they had been in a championship game as Clare refused to bow down at any stage throughout the game.

Derry were no doubt hoping to get through this game with the minimum of fuss and their hard running drills in their pre-match warm up routine meant that they were up and running in the scoreboard in the early exchanges. Clare though had obviously learned lesson from their previous meetings and it was the Bannermen who looked dangerous on the counter-attack and were rewarded with a well deserved team goal from Emmet McMahon leaving the half time score at 0-9 to 1-6.

Both goalies were making their mark with Stephen Ryan doing well in the Clare goal while Odhran Lynch was doing damage out the field and landing two excellent points from play.

Clare’s workrate in the first half was impressive as they literally and physically got to grips with the Derrymen, much to the annoyance of the Derry supporters while their tackling, grafting and running off the ball put the Oak Leafers under pressure in the scoring zone with Derry registering six wides in that first half.

In the second half Derry came out with all guns blazing, firing over a number of well worked scores with Shane McGuigan to the fore. In response, Clare’s stand in captain,Jamie Malone fired over two fine points from play and similar to the Monaghan game Clare refused to wilt despite being under intense pressure. Derry continued to push on and went eight points up going in to the last quarter but well taken scores from Mark McInerney and Micheal Garry left six points between the sides at the end of proceedings.

Many of the Clare supporters in attendance entered the field of play at the end to pay their respects to the players efforts in this tough mini-Ulster group which was akin to competing in Division 1 of the National Football League.

They also wanted to show their gratitude to Colm Collins and his management team for guiding the fortunes of this Clare side not just this year but for his ten years in charge where they emerged from Division 4 in 2014 to spend seven years in Division 2, competing with some of the best teams in the country on a consistent and regular basis.

The Collins Effect:

I have had the privilege of being involved previously with Colm at underage levels with Clare and also in the senior set up when he was first appointed. From the outset Colm was intent on raising standards within Clare football and especially in the county set-up.

He would have managed the Clare Minor and u21 footballers as well as the Cratloe senior football team at that stage and was relatively inexperienced in terms of senior inter-county management but this did not faze him in any way. He knew exactly what style of football he wanted the team to play and he had a vision of what he wanted them to achieve. He was ahead of the game in terms of keeping possession and retaining kickouts while setting achievable targets that could be monitored by an excellent stats team.

Colm was open to new ideas and new voices and that is why he brought in quality and innovative coaches such as Paudie Kissane, Ephie Fitzgerald, Mick Bohan, Brian Carson, Gerry McGowan and Mark Doran which kept the set up fresh and ever evolving.

Raising Standards:

When he first arrived on the scene in late 2013 he supported the stance that Clare would not take part in the McGrath Cup that coming January due to seeding issues in the Munster championship. This illustrated the fact that he was not afraid to voice his opinion about the status quo within the GAA at that time.

It was not always easy to get the best players playing with the county at the same time and singing from the same hymn-sheet as club rivalries and an indifference to playing for the county was not uncommon. Clare were fortunate at that time that there was an ambitious and talented group of players who wanted to improve further under Colm and move in the right direction.

Early on in his tenure Colm arranged for the panel to go down to Beara Island in Cork where they were put through their paces on an army base without any home comforts which helped galvanise the squad who later secured promotion in his first year with a final round victory over Antrim in Creggan with a visit to Croke Park to follow.

Clare footballers had not been to Croke Park since 1992 and this was a breath of fresh air despite the narrow loss to Tipperary. Training was now taking place in the modern surroundings of the astro-turf pitches in the University of Limerick which allowed for consistent coaching and dependable facilities especially during the winter months.

Training camps like Fota Island Resort in Cork were now being used for championship preparations which was a far cry from Beara Island and from what previous generations of Clare players were used to.

More success was to follow in 2016 with Clare going one step further, gaining promotion from Division 3 while also taking the league honours by defeating Roscommon in Croke Park. Clare defeated the same opposition in the championship to reach the All-Ireland quarter final, a great achievement considering the lack of underage success within the county.

To give credit to the County Board they trusted Colm and backed his ambitions in terms of getting in top quality coaches, medical expects and top class strength and conditioning personnel including Chris De Looze, Rob Mulcahy and Micheal Cahill.

If there was any shortfalls in finance in relation to player welfare or team preparations Colm was instrumental in organising a fundraising committee to ensure the players were as well looked after as any other county in Ireland and they responded accordingly. The players were now able to put all their energies into improving themselves on and off the field of play without any of the distractions or obstacles that previous groups may have had to contend with.

Like any good leader Colm led from the front and shouldered and protected players from any issues that would deviate from the process and fought on their behalf at all times without any drama or fuss.

Ambitious:

Of course there were disappointments, setbacks and challenges along the way but that is part of the course of being involved in an inter-county set up. Colm made no secret of the belief and ambitions he had for his Clare squad and this filtered through to the players.

Backroom stalwarts like Jim Marrinan and Tom Bonfil added to the unity and family feel of the panel as standards continued to rise with consistent performances in league and championship which saw them push top teams like Kerry and Mayo to the limit with James Horan later labelling Clare as the ultimate character test.

Despite retaining Division 2 status for seven years, Division 1 was always a burning ambition for the manager and squad who refused to put any glass ceiling on their progress. Clare constantly surprised pundits, bookies and analysts with their quality of performances and results.

People were beginning to sit up and respect what the Clare team and management were doing. Loyal supporters like Mike O’Brien and Brian O’Neill who had travelled to Ruislip in London when the team was in Division 4 were now travelling in style to exotic places like the Athletic Grounds in Armagh and Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon with Clare FM commentators Syl O’Connor and Joe Garry adding to the excitement and drama on the radio.

Colm had many generals on and off the field during his term in charge with Gary Brennan and Eoin Cleary being two well appointed and capable captains. They both helped to drive on the standards that Colm demanded as the team began to mirror their manager’s pride in representing their county as they reached another All-Ireland quarter final again in Croke park in 2022 only to be undone by a rampant Derry outfit.

Sam Maguire v Tailteann Cup:

In hurling there is the Meagher, Rackard, Ring, Joe McDonagh and Liam McCarthy Cups and you play to the level of competition that you are capable of competing in. In Gaelic Football this is the first year of a similar split level competition and Clare were determined to reach the Sam Maguire Cup and challenge themselves against top quality opposition.

Despite being relegated to Division 3 in 2023, Clare had quite a noteworthy season beating an ever improving Cork team in the Munster championship semi-final in Ennis for the first time in 26 years and gaining entry into the top tier competition. The consistency of training and preparation continued to be transferred into on-field performances with hopes of silverware still in the frame. That is why the defeat to Kerry in The Munster final and Donegal in the first round of the Round Robin did not sit well with either the management or the team as they did not perform to their ultimate capabilities.

Despite being stretched to the limit with injuries and absences Clare recovered well and competed really strongly against Monaghan in Clones and Derry in Longford to finish the year on a positive note. The competition at the highest levels in Gaelic football and hurling is unforgiving as we saw at the weekend with Tipperary’s 32 point demolition of Offaly and Kerry and Dublin’s annihilation of Louth and Sligo.

Clare were within 5 points of each of their opponents in Group 4 and they showed that they are more than capable of competing at this level.

It is only when you are involved in an inter-county set up or have a someone close to you involved that you see and appreciate the massive commitment that players and management must bring to the table to be competitive not to mind being successful. Clare need all the top quality players in the county and beyond at their disposal if they are to compete for silverware on a regular basis.

Colm followed the example of previous Clare manager Micheal McDermott, by bringing in players from outside the county who had strong Clare connections including Shane McGrath, Pat Burke, Eoghan Collins, Rob Eyres and Conor Jordan who all added to the quality of the squad while also adding strength in depth and competition for places which is vital in any set up.

Competing at the top level of the championship this year will no doubt benefit the younger members of the panel in particular and will stand to them in the years ahead. There is still the argument that Clare had the potential to reach the latter stages of the Tailteann Cup and possibly win it but that is all speculation as Cavan and Fermanagh have already bit the dust as Meath, Down, Laois and Antrim are all left vying for the final top two spots where there will be only one winner.

Legacy:

Ultimately Colm Collins has left an endearing mark on Clare football and leaves it in a better place with a solid foundation. There always has been a strong football tradition within the county and Colm harnessed that and developed it with his unique managerial style that got the best out of the players at his disposal.

He knew their partner’s names, their parents and even their grandparents and always dealt with the players with good humour and a human touch while he was also capable of laying down the law when needed.

The County Board have now the responsibility to continue with this progressive and innovative approach and keep Clare Football on an upward trajectory. Standards can slip very easily and this must not be allowed to happen at all levels and the next managerial appointment needs to be given all the support and assistance that is required to keep Clare competing in the higher echelons of inter-county football.

Colm may have officially retired but those in power at the top table would do well to use his experience and expertise and involve him in a decision making or advisory capacity with regard to football development in this county.

Colm was always humble and unassuming and his passion for Clare GAA was matched by his love of Kilmihil and Cratloe GAA clubs. His sons Sean, Padraic[Podge] and David are and have been great servants to Cratloe and Clare GAA and been outstanding ambassadors for both. His wife Kate has been a loyal, proud and patient supporter of Colm and their sons and the Collins family represent all that is good about community, family and friends within the Gaelic Athletic Association.

In recent days there have been many heartfelt and touching tributes to Colm on the news of his retirement from inter-county duty but the one that resonated with me the most was the tribute paid by current Clare captain Eoin Cleary, which really sums up Colm’s contribution to Clare football and what he meant to the Clare players. He firstly described Colm as a special person and the ultimate player’s manager, “You gave us hope, You made us dream, You filled us with confidence… We were never playing for Clare,we were playing for Colm Collins”. The ultimate compliment to the ultimate manager. Thank you to Colm and to all your able assistants for all the great memories and best of luck with whatever you choose to do in the future.

It is the end of this journey but hope springs eternal for Clare Football.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

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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