*Conall O hAinifein shrugs off the challenge of Cork’s full back Kevin Flahive.             Photograph: Martin Connolly

THE microscope rightly falls on Cork this week as pundits examine the Rebel footballers’ downfall after they were thumped at Cusack Park on Sunday. Cork’s collapse seems to be happening in slow
motion, not unlike Clare’s rise (which I’ll talk more about later). In the National Football League we’ve now beaten the
Leesiders three years running – but this is the absolute worst I’ve seen from Cork.
Cork look certain for Division 3, based on the lacklustre display they put on in Ennis.
They looked clueless, their work ethic wasn’t good enough, and once they made it past our 45m line they looked up the creek without a paddle. No runners off the shoulder, very pedestrian, and when the game was gone from them they dropped tools and Clare tapped on a few scores to add gloss to the scoreline. There were two incidents in this game which told the story for Cork.
Clare scored two early goals, the first one by man of the match David Tubridy. But it was the second goal which caught my eye, when Conall O hAinifein waltzed through three of them without being touched. Crazy stuff from a vapid Cork defence. Then, towards the end of the contest a kick-out from the Cork goalie Mark White was fielded by Gary Brennan. The game was decided at this point so Gary had a pot shot over the goalie’s head. White could have scrambled back and easily gathered the ball but instead he sauntered back and flapped it wide, putting it out for a 45. All he wanted to do was get back on the bus and go home to Cork. It meant nothing to him and I feel that’s the way a lot of Cork players are at the moment – they don’t have the belief or interest in playing for their team.
Reflecting on all that, if Clare lost the game it would have been very disappointing but there was no danger of that, which makes this all the more satisfying. The six points acquired from those two early goals was the gap for pretty much the whole game. They played very good football and opened up Cork at their ease sometimes. Gary Brennan, David Tubridy and Gordon Kelly were the three I picked out after the defeat to Donegal, and once again they’re the three who stood tallest when needed against Cork. That’s not taking away from the rest of the Clare team who were strong across the park.
Cork maybe stood off Tubridy a little bit but it’s difficult to stop someone of his class when he’s in the mood and the Doonbeg man punished them accordingly. Gary was his usual dominant self, albeit he was a bit curtailed by the absence of Cathal O’Connor in the midfield beside him (serving a one-match ban), who usually affords Gary more of a free role. And Gordon was rock solid defensively – always out in front of his man, and serving as that link between defence and attack.
What disappointed me a small bit at the weekend was an unwillingness to use the mark, again. They still create chances and Clare were out in front of their men, so you couldn’t fault them but I’d like to see more marks called in a game like that, especially when you have the likes of Tubridy on a serious crest of a wave at the moment, along with natural finishers like Conor Finucane. Conor needs to get the ball into his hands with a bit more regularity and a few marks around the 30m line would be ideal for a talented two-footed kicker like him.
That aside, there’s still more in this Clare team. Having witnessed Clare mix it in Division 2 over the last three years, 100 per cent I believe that we fight for promotion to Division 1. Knowing Colm Collins, that’s this team’s aim and it’s definitely achievable.
Looking at our progression, even from last year when we did very well to stay up. We blooded a few new players last season and that experience is already on show this year. I think we’re much cuter and we definitely have a better panel now.
At the weekend we went out without Cathal O’Connor, who has been one of our strongest players over the last two or three league seasons, and Eoin Cleary who is our strongest forward along with Tubridy at the moment. We didn’t even use Gavin Cooney and he’s someone I’d pinpoint as a man who will step up this year. And still, we beat Cork. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve beaten Cork in the last 15 or 20 years so just to show that confidence that’s been fostered throughout the last two seasons – regardless of how bad Cork were – was encouraging. Clare have also now used three goalkeepers which shows we have strength in depth in the net and not just out the field. They’re experimenting with the panel and you need to do that to build a panel for the step up to Division 1.
We’re in a lovely position in that we have three points, just one off the top. However not to try and contradict myself, Division 2 is as tight as they come which early results have shown, so while we’re well capable of winning any game, we’re also capable of losing them all. Some of our upcoming fixtures include Fermanagh and Tipp away. Meath over the last two years have taught us a lesson and we’ll welcome them to
Cusack Park with some trepidation.
Kildare away is next, a side who scored just two points from play away to the ultra defensive Fermanagh. Before the season started you’d say this is a very tough fixture but now, the way the games are going and how Clare are playing, you’d have hope that we can bring two points across the Shannon. A quick start could be key and if Clare come out like they did against Cork, they could well keep Kildare at bay for 70 minutes.