*Eoin Cleary under pressure from the Kerry defence. Photograph: Martin Connolly
CROSSING south over the River Shannon last Saturday after an evening spent at Pairc Sean
MacDiarmada, I faced into two hours and 10 minutes to savour in the car as myself (and my son) reflected on an impressive win.
With Clare having accounted for Leitrim, I left the ground on a a high – it was the first time in a long while I came away from a 70-minute period of Clare football satisfied. Lots of boxes were ticked. Clare put up 3-17 in a championship game; they put up 2-12 in a half of football to lead by 11 points; Clare even emptied the bench and got valuable gametime for some panellists. And most importantly, we finally got to see some real positivity from the team.
There are three areas of improvement that have all helped to ignite a flame for Clare, each of which are worth looking at seperately; a) our tactical approach; b) Gary Brennan being freed up to play a more
attacking role and c) our four key scorers firing on all cylinders at the same time.
Tactics on the money –
Positivity is the key word here, because the tactical approach was the biggest contributor to this performance. The gameplay Colm Collins implemented was a continuation of what worked so well in the second half against Kerry in the Munster semi-final. Running at the opposition defence with intensity, breaking off team-mate’s shoulders and refusing to settle for keep-ball for the sake of possession. And they worked it to a tee, in perfect conditions on a perfect field. The game was over after 25 minutes and it just showed what could have been against Waterford (who I believe are a step below Leitrim), and certainly Collins might rue a missed opportunity against Kerry, who we really troubled with this style of play in the second half.
As a unit Clare always cover back excellently but at times they can be caught a bit flat on their feet when in possession. A good example of this is Cian O’Dea, a guy who always works hard but who had a habit of giving the ball away a bit cheaply. His distribution was excellent on Saturday and our high-tempo gameplan definitely helped players like Cian reach their potential. It’s brilliant to see is how slick Clare looked as a unit going forward, especially in the first 35 minutes. Gary Brennan, Conal O’hAinifin, Sean Collins, Cathal O’Connor, Jamie Malone, Eoin Cleary, all running hard at them. People coming off the shoulder at pace, breaking tackles, making an extra 10 or 15 yards, forcing their opponant to pull them down or creating a score for a
teammate. What we had seen all year –
except for the second half against Kerry – was them passing the ball along the line, never breaking a tackle, giving it to a man in a static position, pass it to another man who was behind him, never really attacking. It was just keeping possession.
Leitrim was a tricky assignment, having won six league games to be promoted for the first time in about two decades, they were really on a high. It was great to see us continue that gameplan and attitude from the second half against Kerry, and Leitrim couldn’t live with that at all, they were at sixes and sevens. We put 2-12 up in the first half alone and Clare were definitely worth that, and maybe even more.
Freedom for Brennan –
The arrival of Sean O’Donoghue in the midfield has given Gary Brennan a lease of life – the Clondegad talisman can now slide into the forward line and cause more destruction. That freedom suits him, illustrated when he bagged his goal after drifting into full forward. When he runs at a centre or full back, it’s very hard to stop him and it’s great to see we can expose him to different areas of the field with the strong pairing of Cathal O’Connor and O’Donoghue now marshalling the middle of the park. That freedom that Brennan plays with now is a part of the spark that saw Clare step their game up to another level.
Leaders on the park –
Eoin Cleary coming into a full bill of health has also helped. You could see that Cleary was really back to himself; his pace, fitness and sharpness hadn’t been up to his Championship standards but it was all on full show against Leitrim and proved the class that he has. From long range points to running into the heart of their defence, Leitrim had no answer to him. Thankfully, this has come as great timing for the rest of the campaign because our four most important scoring players are all going well at a very crucial time in the year. Jamie Malone, I always felt had more in him. There was a nagging feeling that he drifted out of games at times but his fitness levels and sharpness also looked to be up, with his driving runs capable of splitting open any defence. He produced 1-2 from play, really thriving on this new penetrative style of play. Tubridy and Brennan are pretty much always reliable, but again Brennan’s ability to play with freedom gives Clare an extra edge, I feel. You’re going to need them four men firing going forward because every match gets a step harder.
In fact if I was to be critical of one thing, it’s that these four guys stood out a bit too much. We got one goal from a sub, young Eimhin Courtney, but the rest of our 2-17 came from those four players; Gary (1-3), Jamie (1-2), Tubridy (0-5) and Cleary (0-7). When you see a 3-17 scoreline you’d have hoped to see a Cathal O’Connor on that scoresheet, a half-back or even a corner back chipping in with a score.
Consistency is key –
Tomas O Sé said on the Sunday Game that Clare punch above their weight at times, and I have said in the past that Colm Collins is getting the best out of these guys. We’ve seen brilliant spells at times, particularly in the second half against Tipperary in the league and against Kerry in the Munster semi-final. In general, it’s 10 or 15 minutes of a purple patch here and there. However on Saturday, it was a full on performance and I don’t believe we were punching above our weight – this is what they’re capable of doing every week.
Westmeath will be a different kettle of fish and to come away with a win would be a huge achievement. Westmeath are in flying form having won Division 3 and this is a genuine 50-50 tie. However if this system is implemented to good effect, there’s no reason why we can’t go on and get another win. Home advantage is worth a point or two, and I hope that’s not the point or two we fall to. Even if we perform the same way we did the last day, the game will not be over after 35 minutes. Clare must maintain their level and the men who come off the bench will have to do more to match the level of intensity of the guys they’re replacing. That’s how we will exploit Westmeath, and ultimately, I believe defeat them.
Prediction: Clare by 2 points