Carefree Clare carry same clout
September zest still there and composure of champions makes for potent league brew
Clare’s Tony Kelly watches the flight of a shot during the NHL Division IA against Galway at Cusack Park in Ennis. Last year’s hurler of the year impressed on Sunday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The dressingroom exits at Cusack Park take
players along a narrow pathway towards the gate. On Sunday, the thoroughfare was crowded with players trying to make their way to the catering room for hot food, with the media waiting to speak with managers and with the new generation of Clare fans waiting for their heroes.
“Ahhh . . . who let O’Donnell out first?” groaned one of the Clare players as he saw Shane O’Donnell, Clare’s All-Ireland final hat-trick scorer, obliging photograph requests with a long line of fans. “We will be here for an hour.”
Everyone laughed, including O’Donnell. It was a small sign of how lightly Clare seem to have taken to being All-Ireland champions. The carefree mood has carried through to the league, with Davy Fitzgerald’s team playing with the same zest and the composure that comes with being champions.
A young team negotiated and thought their way through what was, for a long time, an uphill battle against Galway. The result was salvaged with the last meaningful strike of the game, Colin Ryan doing his usual William Tell act when Clare were granted a late free.
Tony Kelly had been taking care of Clare’s dead-ball duties prior to Ryan’s introduction – and he had a busy afternoon – but was content to step aside for the critical free.
“He is the boss for all of them,” laughed the hurler of the year. “I am only the fill-in lad for them. Look it, once he is on the field he is the free-taker. He is the target man, or whatever, and no better man to stand over a free to level a game or get a score.”
That Fitzgerald could withdraw Conor McGrath from the starting line-up, held in reserve alongside regular names like Pat Donnellan and John Conlon, speaks volumes for the rate at which this group is maturing.
The manager has repeatedly stressed the group has considerable work to do to reach their championship fitness levels. And yet they have played through Division One A with little sign of lethargy, reaching the required pitch for card-marking wins over Kilkenny and Tipperary and squeezing a result against Galway.
“Mmmh, maybe this year we have a bit of experience . . . we were so young last year coming into it and maybe the experience of winning the All-Ireland last year stood for us and we didn’t panic when we went down to 14. It drew the fighting spirit out of us.”
Lot of work to do
Clare lost Shane Golden after half an hour, leaving them with a lot of work to do against a Galway side “up” for the game.
“Going down to 14 we knew we were going to have to work harder, and the work starts with the forwards to make the backs’ job that bit easier.
“And in fairness, I thought the five forwards worked extremely hard and we kept together as a team. Even the five lads that came on, we worked together and got the job done in the end.”
The benefit of reaching the quarter-finals is it gives Fitzgerald what he most wants now – more games for his squad.
The rotation policy should continue, even if defenders like Paul Flanagan and Cian Dillon played so well they will be tough to dislodge.
Even Kelly had been held in reserve in earlier rounds and Fitzgerald reckoned the benefit of the break was evident in his illuminating performance.
But the application was obvious in every line. “That comes from the lads getting their chance today who weren’t there for the previous rounds,” Kelly acknowledged. “They are fighting for their spot as well.”
The league draw has given them another afternoon in Cusack Park, against Laois.
“Matches are the way to prepare for championship. You can train all you want but matches are how you judge yourself. Laois now . . . every team that has played them this year below in Division One B has struggled to beat them, if not lost to them, and I know they are going to come out next week with all guns blazing, so we are going to have be prepared for them.”