*Clare manager, Brian Lohan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP campaign draws to a close with Clare’s senior hurlers edging closer but not arriving in the promised land.

Similar to the Munster Final defeat to Limerick, Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kilkenny left players, management and supporters deflated because they knew victory was within their grasp but was not snatched.

First things first, with the conclusion of another inter-county season for Clare’s hurlers it is important to acknowledge the commitment and dedication shown by everyone involved in the set-up from starting players, extended panellists, management, kit men, hurley carriers, statisticians, video analysts, medics and liaison officers. Countless hours are put in all in the name of their county’s cause.

It is fair to say that Clare at present are one of the top three hurling counties at senior level, take your pick on where exactly they fall in that pecking order.

Clare did not qualify from the Munster round-robin in 2019 while a year previous they were the width of a post from advancing to an All-Ireland final. That 2019 campaign included a thirteen point defeat to Tipperary and an eighteen point loss to Limerick, results which would bring to an end Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor’s tenure as joint managers.

Fireworks billowed from nearby Clarecastle when Brian Lohan was ratified as manager that October, it was more to do with Halloween than actual celebrations but it marked the dawning of a new era.

Lohan’s era has on a whole been largely progressive including back to back All-Ireland semi-final and Munster Final appearances in 2022 and 2023 plus reaching the quarter-final stages in 2020 while defeats to Tipperary in the provincial series and a qualifier exit to Cork underpinned the 2021 bid.

Physically Clare’s collective is now matching the biggest teams whereas in the past it was only a section of the side that could complete with the S&C pedigree of other counties. Equally, it was said that Clare maxed out in their bid for provincial honours last season and had nothing left in the tank when it came to the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final clashes with Wexford and Kilkenny but that was rectified this season with the addition of Adrian O’Brien to the already effective mind of Michael Carmody boosting the Banner in the area of S&C.

Under Lohan’s watch, Clare have delivered consistent championship performances, improved the county’s provincial record and given an important lift to the morale of their supporters.

In a results based business, it has to be pointed out that while Clare have come close they have not obtained any silverware during the past four seasons.

An unfortunate trend has been the detrimental decisions that have proved oh so costly. Deploying a sweeper against Kilkenny in the opening half of Sunday’s semi-final has left the county puzzled, particularly when Clare did not operate with a seventh defender all season and when their second half start clearly showed just how effective they are when bulked up with right numbers to run at opposing teams. Utilising a sweeper requires familiarity with the system, it didn’t suit Clare but rather cost them albeit management were smart enough to discard its use at half-time.

Other aspects from Sunday’s encounter include the head-scratching decision to leave Aron Shanagher waiting on the sideline until the seventieth minute, his impact helped to beat Limerick in the Munster round-robin while all of Kilkenny’s substitutes were timely in their introduction and made their own distinct impression.

Tony Kelly battles to win possession. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

Also with the benefit of hindsight we are able to say that an alternative role should have been sourced for Tony Kelly. As was outlined in Darach Honan’s column for The Clare Echo last week, Clare needed the Ballyea sharpshooter scoring early, he hit 0-01 in the opening half and had two assists but was not as involved as was needed. A side’s best player is key to the success of any team yet Clare seemed content to keep the captain in a deeper role.

When it came to the Munster Final, the time at which it took to make positional switches to try curb Aaron Gillane’s dominance was a primary reason why Clare’s wait to obtain a senior provincial crown was not ended. Playing Cian Nolan was not a mistake but rather failing to recognise how isolated he was left with the leading contender for Hurler of the Year, once he picked up a yellow card the Killaloe man was on a tightrope and it was at this juncture a positional switch was necessary.

Similar to Nolan was the decision to throw Páidí Fitzpatrick in at the deep end for last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. What is baffling is that neither man had featured in a championship contest for the season with which they ended up getting a starting spot for a defining game.

Nobody will be devastated if Clare fail to win the National League so it is perplexing as to why the competition was not used to trial fringe players who have yet to establish themselves. By not widening the net, management left themselves stretched for options or gambling on players with insufficient game-time in the absence of nailed on starters like John Conlon and Conor Cleary, as happened in the 2022 semi-final and 2023 Munster final.

Clare have certainly closed the gap on the top counties but they have left the front door wide open by getting big calls wrong on the most important of days.

With regards to 2024, Brian Lohan has the backing of the majority of the public and based on performances he has been able to get the best out of the players at his disposal. Therefore it is in the best interests of hurling in the county if he continues in the role for another season.

However, strengthening his management and adding freshness to the set-up is essential for Clare’s quest for success next season. Shooting efficiency aside, there can be few complaints with the standard of Clare’s hurling ability and he inroads have been on the fitness side of the house.

*The Clare management, James Moran, Ken Ralph and Brian Lohan make their way to the dressing room. Photograph: Joe Buckley

With the set-up potentially entering a fifth season, Lohan should look to bolster his ticket. Both Ken Ralph and James Moran have had a long-working relationship with the two-time All-Ireland winner stretching back to their Fitzgibbon Cup success with UL in 2015 and it is arguably here and within the backroom team personnel that new ideas, faces and voices are most required.

Given that some of the county’s finest hurlers in Shane O’Donnell, John Conlon, Tony Kelly and David McInerney are coming towards the end of their inter-county careers, it would be a shame if they were to bow out of the county colours with just one All-Ireland senior medal and one National League medal to their names so the inward reflection and tough calls will have to be made in order to ensure Clare have the best possible set-up at their disposal to renew the quest for glory in 2024.

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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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