*Clare senior football manager, Mark Fitzgerald. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

MARK FITZGERALD begins his first championship campaign as Clare senior football manager this Saturday as the Banner bid to reach a second successive Munster final.

Waterford fresh from recording their first championship win since 2010 provide the opposition in Fraher Field, Dungarvan, a venue which has often offered a tricky test for Clare teams.

Speaking to The Clare Echo, Mark admitted that it was a surprise to find themselves preparing for an away semi-final with Waterford rather than welcoming Tipperary to Cusack Park in Ennis.

“You’d be lying if you said you weren’t surprised that Waterford won, I was actually at the game, both teams didn’t cover themselves in glory in the first half but at the same token Waterford were still in it and were still in it and were only four points down, they had a fantastic second half and showed the quality they have. Momentum is a huge thing in sport, Waterford lads at the last minute looked a far different team than they did in the first minute, we have to be wary of it, we’re well aware of the difficulties going down there, Clare teams have struggled against them in the past, the U20s went down there in the 2021 and got well beaten, a lot of those guys are playing with us now so we’re well aware of the difficulty of the task”.

Manus Doherty, Emmet McMahon, Cillian Rouine, Micheál Garry, Mark McInerney, Brian McNamara and Jamie Stack were part of the 2021 U21 side shocked by the Déise when defeated 4-5 1-9.

Although they are aware of the difficulties Dungarvan has posed for Clare football teams, it hasn’t been a dominant issue in their pre-match discussions, Fitzgerald said. “You could spend your life going back through history, the reality of it is that Waterford while they haven’t had a good league campaign they certainly got better as the league went on, they got that win under their belt and as I said momentum is huge so we just have to concentrate on ourselves and keep doing what we’ve been doing but do it a little bit better and be more consistent”.

A win for Clare not only books their place in the Munster final but also guarantees their place in the All-Ireland SFC whereas defeat will see them partake in the Tailteann Cup. Tralee native Fitzgerald insisted they are not looking beyond 6pm on Saturday evening. “I keep saying this all year with the league and I’ll say it with the championship, this is game by game for us, whatever it brings afterwards so be it, at the moment the only objective for us is to beat Waterford down there and whatever comes after it we’ll deal with it”.

Reflecting on Clare’s league campaign which saw them fall short of promotion in the final round, Mark stated, “The key takeaways was that we have to get better at doing things right over a consistent period, there has been games where we’ve been brilliant, there’s been periods where we’ve been absolutely awful, the big takeaway is that if you can try stay in a game, keep trying and keep playing, that is all I can ask of the lads, we did that in most of the games and it got us over the line in one or two of those games”.

Mixing the good with the bad was a far too common feature of Clare’s seven league outings. The learnings from this will need to be applied for championship. “When you take fifteen players out of a set-up it leaves a huge vacuum no matter what team you are talking about, it took a while for lads to find their feet in terms of stepping up to leadership roles even though they are quite capable of playing in Division 3 or Division 2 but it just takes time, we hope that we have rectified some of it, it is not from the want of trying, the league is done and dusted now, we have to move on, whatever it was it was, it is all about championship now for us and championship for us at the moment is Saturday night in Fraher Field”.

Rewinding back to the autumn, Mark admitted “the fact that Clare rang me” was a big factor in enticing him to stay in inter-county management after his time in charge of Limerick ended. “I knew Declan Downes from before, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to keep Declan, it was one of the big things because he has a significant knowledge of Clare football, he has been brilliant for me and brilliant for the group. I would have been well aware of the qualities of Clare down through the years and what Colm (Collins) was building albeit I didn’t know the full extent of what was to go but I still felt when I looked around the dressing room, my own club had played Éire Óg in the Munster club two years ago, I saw the U20s against Kerry last year, Clare has a good footballing tradition so I felt it was an exciting project to take on”.

Immediately after his appointment in September, Mark became a regular fixture at knockout games in the Clare SFC, this helped him to identify players such as Cormac Murray and Joe McGann who were brought back into the fold while Cian Burke, Gavin Murray and Diarmuid O’Donnell were among those recruited to the panel. “For the most part those club games were very good, teams were well set-up, well coached, well put-together and that has to stand to Clare football in the grand scheme of things, I had seen Joe McGann and Cian Burke play really well for St Breckan’s, Diarmuid O’Donnell with Kildysart and a few more that we looked at that just need a bit more time, there’s plenty quality there and I just felt if we could get them in and give them a little bit more belief they could do something and that was reflected in some of our performances”.

With a high turnover, there has been no choice but for Fitzgerald and his management to blood new talent which in itself has resulted in the creation of fresh leaders. “This year you’d no other choice but to throw them in at the deep end, that is what we needed but there is part of that, there is one on one stuff, there’s me talking with them, seeing how they are getting on, for a lot of these lads it happens naturally and you hope you survive but to be fair they have done really well, the push comes from the players they have been brilliant”.

Commuting from Tralee to Clare training generally takes an hour and forty minutes where he tends to be accompanied by selector James Costello. “One of the nights we train over in UL which isn’t ideal, you don’t have a full base to build proper habits but I think that is on the horizon with the development in Caherlohan, it is only an hour and forty so it’s not too bad, I’m used to it at this stage,” he said of the journey.

Demands on inter-county players and mentors continue to rise, encouraging those involved to take time out has been high on Fitzgerald’s agenda. “The big thing is you do need a little bit of downtime to recharge the batteries, my wife takes on the brunt of it, I’ve three kids and they are busy so I try get to all their stuff, you do have to get a bit of downtime to recharge yourself and I do give the players a little bit of downtime and the management team, that is important because they have families outside of this, despite what we think this isn’t the be all and end all for everyone. That is reflective of where the group is at the moment, it is nice and relaxed, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with what went before, this is just the style I bring to it, we’ll see where it takes us”.

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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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