*David Clifford brushes past Cillian Brennan. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
NO BETTER SIDE than Kerry to give a team of a reality check of where they truly stand.
That was the case in the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday as Clare lining out in their Munster senior football final since 2012 were given a clear indicator on the level they need to get to in order to compete with the top counties.
The Litmus Test:
The modern mantra after a defeat is that you don’t lose, you learn. After the sobering loss to Kerry in the Munster final, Clare’s footballers will be hurting and looking to take on the learnings and improve on their fourteen point reversal at the hands of reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions, Kerry.
The Kerry team are traditionally the litmus test for all Gaelic footballers across the country. If you have any frailties or weaknesses in your game, either individually or collectively, they will expose you in a ruthless and efficient manner. This was the case last Sunday as Kerry’s pace, decision-making abilities and opportunism along with their direct kicking and running game ensured that any hope of a Clare upset were quickly dashed with a brace of goals that left the underdogs reeling at half-time.
Kerry were clearly very hungry for goals in particular and were keen to answer any questions about their recent indifferent league form and lack of goals in their recent championship game against Tipperary.
Whether you desire it or not Kerry will often give a team a reality check of where they are on the pecking order. When they are in the form that they were on Sunday the Kingdom will give a similar schooling to three quarters of the inter-county teams in Ireland but this is of little solace to the Bannermen.
Clare needed to start quickly and bring their A game to the Gaelic Grounds if they were going to be competitive. However whether it was the occasion or lack of big game experience at this level, Clare were slow out of the blocks and making uncharacteristic errors, both forced and unforced, n terms of ball handling dropping the ball short and giving the ball away. Kerry,on the other hand were ruthless in punishing these mistakes and two if not three of the goals and a number of points came from these negative turnovers.
The untimely passing of Paudie and David Clifford’s mother, Ellen Clifford (RIP) seemed to have a galvanising effect on the Kerry squad and they were certainly ultra-focused and single
minded in their pursuit of Munster honours. Slick attacking moves and loose Clare defending saw Tony Brosnan, Dara Moynihan and David Clifford bag three first half goals. These majors meant that Clare were trailing the odd- on favourites by ten points at half time and facing an uphill struggle.
In fairness to Clare they battled hard to reel in Kerry and with a little more composure could have got in for two goals but Kerry soon hit back with goals from the Clifford brothers as they managed to score 3-07 between them. In general, the Clare defenders found the Kerry attackers too hot to handle with Sean O’Shea pulling the strings from centre-forward as Clare tried to free up Jamie Malone as the extra defender with Pearse Lillis keeping tabs on Paudie Clifford. The Kerry forwards are so mobile and rotate so much that they are so hard to tie down with runners coming from all sorts of angles.
I was involved on the tailend of a similar defeat to Kerry in the 2000 Munster Final, losing by 3-15 to 0-08 where they raided for goals and left you chasing the game. Goals can suck the energy out of a team but Clare remained spirited to the end although the game was well over as a contest by then.
Clare tagged on some quality scores in the second half from the likes of Eoin Cleary, Emmet McMahon, the hard-running Ciaran Russell and the hard-working Keelan Sexton to keep the flag flying for the Banner under trying circumstances.
Kerry along with their excellent link play were also intent on stopping Clare’s attacking moves at source. Anyone who has played the game and are familiar with the finer details of gaelic football will know that Kerry knew when and where to put the pressure on the Clare ball carriers and runners, both on and off the ball.
Like all of the top teams, Kerry were looking for screening opportunities and were effective in their high pressing and tackling. When Clare did get the opportunity to run at Kerry at pace they caused them some issues and fifteen points along with ten wides would indicate Clare’s ability to get their shot off but not always in a clinical manner.
Keelan Sexton was a little isolated up front in the first half and Clare did not open their scoring from play until after the twentieth minute of the first half. Kerry were content to give away frees rather than let Clare get into a rhythm in the game.
On a side note Kerry looked very comfortable with their Gaelic Grounds surroundings on Sunday. The Kerry team [according to the Clár an Lae] were not scheduled to enter the field of play until 3.35pm, two minutes after the Clare team entered but they were definitely on the pitch for eight minutes or more before Clare arrived .In the first half, the Kerry manager, JackO’Connor spent more time on the sideline in the ear of the linesman than he did
inside the manager’s box and none of the match officials seemed to bat an eyelid at this.
At half time the Kerry substitutions did a full 15 minute workout in the middle of the pitch during the Primary Game at half time. Was this really necessary and would it have been allowed if the Clare S&C team decided to do something similar?
Kerry will always get the benefit of the doubt in these games as they added an eighty fourth Munster title to their list of honours as their big game experience continues to assist them in their quest for glory.
Reflect and Review:
Although Clare will be disappointed and understandably a little deflated after their final loss there is still a lot to play for as the round robin kicks into gear. There were some green shoots and it was great to see young Brian McNamara from Cooraclare get game time and hold his own in the middle of the field in the second half.
It was also encouraging to see Cian O’Dea back in action and if he can stay injury free then he will be a big addition in the coming weeks.It was also encouraging to see the amount of youngsters in Clare jerseys who went on to the pitch after the final whistle to meet and console their heroes.
If Clare can tidy up on their build up play, cut out the elementary mistakes and avoid leaking goals they will be a match for anyone in their group. Very few teams in the country have the attacking weaponry that Kerry possess and Clare will face a number of different tactical and technical challenges as they move forward in the weeks ahead.
Clare have shown in the last few years that they absorb their lessons quickly. They have shown that again recently as they bounced back from successive defeats to Cork and Derry in the league to give much improved performances in the championship. The players will know that they have a great opportunity to push on again under the new system where you have a chance to right any wrongs in a short window of time.
Clare of course will need a few days to recover physically and more importantly mentally but the backroom team are experienced enough to get the squad back on track in time for the opening game of the Tier 1 championship.
The Super 16s:
Next up for Clare in the new format of the All-Ireland football series on the weekend of May 20/21.As provincial losers Clare are now placed in Group 4 as second seeds along with the winners of the Ulster Final between Derry and Armagh (Seed 1), Monaghan (Seed 3) and Donegal (Seed 4).
In the first game Clare have a home game against Donegal, with the second game away to Monaghan and the third game in a neutral venue against the Ulster final winners. The winners of the group will go straight into a quarter-final proper with the second and third teams playing off in a preliminary quarter finals with the winners going in to the quarter final proper.
All these games will be all high profile matches and it gives Clare a great chance to re-group and take the scalp of a higher ranked county. There are no easy games in this group but Clare
are more than capable of holding their own and they will be aiming to finish in the top three places by the end of the round robin series.
These games will give a clearer picture of where the team is at and three tough championship matches in a short space of time will really test the resilience and depth of the Clare squad.
Donegal are up first and they will bring a good support base and novelty factor to Cusack Park as both teams will be desperate to kick-start their season with a positive result.
The Boys from Donegal:
A good Clare following attended the Munster final and each and every one of them will be needed again in two weeks in Cusack Park for the visit of the Tir Conaill men, the tie already fixed for Saturday May 20th at 2pm. The general consensus at the moment is that Donegal are in turmoil both on and off the pitch and that they are vulnerable at present. That may be true but it must also be stated that they were a Division 1 side this year, albeit being relegated to Division 2 at the end of the league. They won the Ulster final as recently as 2019 and were narrowly beaten by Derry 1-16 to 1-14 in last year’s Ulster final.
Clare have always had difficulty in defeating Donegal in league encounters over the years and Donegal have had time to re-group since their opening round defeat to Down by 2-13 to 1-11. Admittedly,they have had come to terms with the retirement of Michael Murphy and the deflection of Ryan McHugh from the panel but the still have plenty of star quality. The recent departure of manager Paddy Carr has also been controversial but they have experienced deputies in Aidan O’Rourke (Armagh) and Paddy Bradley (Derry) helping out on the sidelines.
Donegal will look to experienced player Paddy McBrearty to provide leadership as he is expected to be fit after missing the Ulster championship defeat to Down through injury. Goalkeeper Shaun Patton has a missile like kickout and free kick that will punish any Clare indiscretions. Other players to keep an eye out for are Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Michael Langan to name but a few. Donegal are still regarded as being in the top 12 in the country, with a physical spine of players and lively forwards that will take watching.
Clare will relish the opportunity of playing at home and if they are to claim an opening round victory they will have to earn the right to do so and implement all those learnings and improvements from the Munster Final that will be needed to secure it on the day.