Clare return to the All-Ireland quarter-final stage a different proposition to 2016

Six years after their only appearance in the last eight, they are an established Division Two team still on the rise

Joe Hayes tuned into the quarter-final draw with precisely the same thought in his head as every other Clare supporter. He didn’t care who came out of the bowl, as long as it wasn’t Kerry. He was the goalkeeper the last – and only – time Clare made it to the last eight of the All-Ireland back in 2016 and of course Kerry were waiting for them. Taking the good out of it like the taxman feasting on a windfall.

This time around, Derry came out of the pot and Hayes was able to go about his day with a light step. He’d have been the same if it had been Dublin or Galway. Clare were going to be underdogs regardless, so all they wanted out of the draw was a bit of novelty. Anything – anything – but yet another walk into the Kerry threshing machine.

“Being in a quarter-final was new to all of us in 2016,” Hayes says. “We had played in Croke park in league finals alright but an All-Ireland quarter-final was uncharted territory for everyone. This time around, they’ve played and won a championship game in Croke Park already so that’s that box ticked. But for about 60 per cent of the group, an All-Ireland quarter-final is a totally new experience. Maybe a bit more even.

“The fact of the matter is, the big thing for everyone is new opposition. I know the players would say they’ll play anybody but speaking as a supporter, just let it be someone different. And that’s what this is – someone very different. You’re still going to be underdogs, you’re still going up against a provincial winner but it’s someone we have never played in championship before. That makes it something to look forward to all the more.”

You never stand in the same river twice. It’s not just the opposition who are different, Clare are different now too. In 2016, they arrived in the All-Ireland quarter-final as curiosities to the wider world. They had just been promoted from Division Three but it was fully presumed that gravity would get them the following spring. This was all just a sweet bit of diversion, a glorious anomaly with a limited shelf-life.

Look at who Clare are now. In six seasons of Division Two football, they’ve finished fifth, third, sixth, sixth, second (of four) and fifth. In championship, they’ve beaten Roscommon twice, as well as Meath, Westmeath, Offaly, Leitrim and Limerick once each. They aren’t turning up to Croke Park on Saturday hoping to keep the score down. They have no reason to believe that Derry’s prospects of being in an All-Ireland semi-final outweigh their own.

“They’re a real established Division Two team,” says Hayes. “They’ve flirted with getting promoted and they’ve flirted with getting relegated. Last year they ran Mayo close to get promoted to Division One and the year before, they had a winner-takes-all game against Armagh on the last day to get promoted – and look how Armagh have kicked on since then.

“So yeah, they’re a solid Division Two team. For this group of players, all they need in any year is a few things to go their way and they should be there or thereabouts at the quarter-final stage. That’s the level they’ve set for themselves and that Colm has set for them. That’s what it should be at minimum.”

Colm is, of course, Colm Collins. The Clare manager is such an institution at this stage that it feels difficult to remember a time before him in Clare football. Since taking over from Mick O’Dwyer in later 2013, Collins has changed everything about the county’s second code. How they see themselves, as much as how others see them. Ask Hayes to sum him up and he lays it all out very simply.

“Honesty,” he says. “There’s nothing more complicated in it than that. Colm brings a total honesty to everything he does. There’s no bull with him, he tells it as it is to every player. He’ll fight for you when you need to be fought for, he’ll give it to you straight when you’re not measuring up. I saw someone on Twitter the other day saying it’s impossible not to like Colm Collins – none of that is put on. That’s exactly who he is.

“He does so much for his players on and off the pitch. If you’re struggling at work, if you have commitments outside football that you need to deal with, he’ll go to the ends of the earth to help you. He never has a gun to anyone’s head telling them they need to be at training or else. If you have young kids and you can’t make it some night, he’s not going to get onto you.

“That’s why Clare tend to keep a squad together with not too many lads drifting away from year to year. I know there was one year there where a few retired and a few fell away but generally, the same faces keep coming back. That’s when you know the set-up is right and the management is on the ball. Young lads come in and they can see straight away it’s worth putting in the time and the commitment and they stay and they see it through.”

And here they are, rising still. They’re six-point underdogs against Derry to make it to the last four. If you think they’ll baulk at those sort of numbers, you haven’t been paying attention.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times