*Michael Neylon. Photograph: Natasha Barton

YEAR FIVE of Michael Neylon’s tenure in charge of the Clare U20 footballers begins in earnest this weekend when his charges make the trip to Waterford.

All but one of the four campaigns to date have seen Clare reach the provincial semi-finals under his watch. The one exception was in 2021 when they lost out to Waterford in Dungarvan.

That 4-5 1-9 loss is certainly not forgotten by Neylon and while it hasn’t been mentioned in discussions with the class of 2024 it still serves as a clear reminder not to underestimate the Déise. “We know that we have an opportunity to do something which has proven very difficult to do over the years, this group of players we don’t discuss anything like that or mention it but I’m sure they are aware of how hard it is to go to Waterford and get a win, what we’re focusing on is getting down to Waterford and getting a really big performance, we’d be very hopeful that the scoreboard will look after itself if we can do that”.

Last year, Clare’s U20s came agonisingly close to beating Kerry in the Munster semi-final and it was an occasion that instilled further belief that the work of the Miltown Malbay man and his management was helping to move Clare football in the right direction. “It was a testament to the guys’ ambition and where Clare underage footballers see themselves as being, those guys wouldn’t have produced a performance like that without knowing that they are as good as anybody, we’d be very hopeful that it permeates down through every underage squad, you’d be delighted for lots of last year’s panel who have gone up and graduated to senior and are really playing well in the senior set-up, it is great for them and for us because we’d be very proud of their achievements so far this year, I said it on the night that the future is very bright and very quickly we’re seeing that those guys are the future”.

Apart from Sean O’Brien, Neylon has a new-look management with him this season where he is joined by Brian Dillon, Killian Phair and Danny McAlinden plus S&C coaches Christor McCaw and Tiernan Slattery. Eoin Murray, David Geaney, Martin Guerin, Diarmuid Carroll, Colm Clancy and Oscar O’Dwyer had previously been involved over the past five seasons.

Equally, there is plenty of change in playing personnel. Joint captains Josh Moloney and Odhran Cunningham, Tom Curran, Sean Neylon and Aaron Kelly are the only remaining players who featured in last year’s semi-final with Kerry. “Every year is a rebuild and this year is no different, it is probably a bigger rebuild than we’ve had in previous years but it is very exciting, we’re getting to know the new players and they are really stepping up to the mark, we’re looking forward to seeing what we can bring and deliver on the big stage now that it is on the door step, we’re focusing on that first game and pushing open a door the first night that will put us in a position to keep banging down doors”. Clondegad’s Cian Kirby and Gary Donnellan from Cooraclare are ruled out through injury for the weekend, the manager confirmed.

Saturday’s tie which throws-in at 5:30pm in Lemybrien poses a dilemma for Clare football supporters as the seniors tie with Antrim was refixed to Saturday at 3:30pm in Cusack Park. The clash is something that the U20s haven’t dwelled on too much, Neylon admitted. “We’re so focused on what we’re doing that I didn’t bat an eyelid, I had a few phone calls from people saying ‘did you hear this is happening’ but it didn’t bother any of us. We’ve been looking forward to this day, we’re going to do our job down in Waterford and let’s hope the seniors can do their job in Cusack Park. It is great, it is all action”.

He acknowledged this will lead to a drop in the Clare support this weekend but he’s hopeful they will have a strong Banner following on Saturday week. “We’d be very hopeful that come Saturday week in Quilty that we will have a really strong support and following but we think we can do something for that, if we do our job in Waterford on Saturday evening then we’ll give people in Clare a great reason to come out on Saturday week to help us along because every step of this journey is going to be a tough one”.

Speaking to The Clare Echo prior to training in Caherlohan on Tuesday night, Michael outlined, “We’ve worked very hard, the lads have put in a great shift since January, we’re delighted that we are on the brink of going out and doing what we are here to do which is to perform in a Munster championship game, we’ve got to make sure we get down to Waterford ready to enjoy ourselves, really fresh and that we can produce what we think were capable of producing on the night”.

A move away from a knockout U20 format is something to be welcomed, the two-time Clare SFC winning manager insisted. “It is such an honour and achievement to play for your county and make a county squad or team, to see that you are going to get the chance to play not just one or two games but a minimum of four, if we’re good enough that goes to five or six, if we’re still good enough that can go to seven or eight games so it really creates an opportunity for players to commit and to realise there’s lots of opportunities because there will be ups and downs, swings and roundabouts in this campaign that will open the gates for players that might not play the first night but will potentially be needed come the second or third day, it is week on week so you don’t get much time to recover so a squad is very important”.

Members of last year’s U20 panel have progressed to the senior ranks and Neylon himself could have made the jump with them having been the first choice as Colm Collins’ successor. “Lots of factors come into play, right now the time input suits me for the U20s, it is manageable so I think everyone in Clare football is doing what they can do, I’m doing what I can do with the U20s at the moment and I am enjoying it,” he said of his decision to stay with the U20s.

Clare U20 Squad: Sean McMahon (Banner), Mufana Flynn (Banner), Diarmuid Toner (Banner), Cillian Gavin (Clondegad), Colm Meaney (Clondegad), Colm Meaney (Clondegad), Sean McAllister (Clondegad), Gary Donnellan (Cooraclare), Jake Garry (Cooraclare), Caoimhin O’Donovan (Corofin), Gavin O’Shea (Doonbeg), Tom Curran (St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield), Cian Howard (Éire Óg), Luke Pyne (Éire Óg), Josh Vaughan (Ennistymon), Sean Conneally (Ennistymon), Mark Kelleher (Ennistymon), Brian McNamara (Ennistymon), Éanna Rouine (Ennistymon), Conor Kearney (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Josh Moloney (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Cathal Talty (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Evan Cahill (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Tomás Sexton (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Cian Corry (Killimer), Odhran Cunningham (Killimer), Conor Fennell (Kilrush Shamrocks), Tadhg Lysaght (Kilrush Shamrocks), Darren Keane (Lissycasey), Michael Kelly (Lissycasey), Ben Skerritt (Lissycasey), Daire Culligan (Lissycasey), Oisin McNamara (Michael Cusacks), Sean Neylon (St Joseph’s Miltown), Padraig O’Dwyer (St Breckan’s), Aaron Kelly (Wolfe Tones).

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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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