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Improved scoring threat has reduced the overdependence on talisman Kelly

Clare manager Brian Lohan was reluctant after the weekend defeat of Cork to accept that his team were as good as in the All-Ireland series. He was correct but the window of opportunity for Cork or Tipperary to move ahead and into one of the top three places is narrowing all the time.

Clare have beaten both of them – for the first time in a season since the All-Ireland-winning summer of 1997 – and unless their rivals pick up unlikely results, starting with Tipp’s visit to Limerick next weekend, the only question will be whether Lohan’s men progress to a Munster final or simply the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final.

There is a combination of circumstances whereby three teams could finish on four points, which would bring in scoring difference but that’s all speculative at the moment.

If there is an element of the team’s play that must be encouraging for Lohan, it’s attack and the fluidity with which they are getting scores. Against Cork, all of the selected forwards scored as well the centrefielders and Diarmuid Ryan at right wing back.


The first eight points from play were scored by eight different players within the first 15 minutes and some of the shot-making was breathtaking.

Team captain Tony Kelly believes it's all part of an integrated effort.

“A fair few of them were coming from the half-back line and midfield. The backs were outstanding again today. Brian gives them licence to go up the field and express themselves.

“They gave a mighty contribution last week and again this week. Even the lads coming off the bench, [Aron] Shanagher and Domhnall McMahon, gave us something different up front in terms of ball-winning ability and slowing the ball coming down to the backs when we were under pressure there in the second half. It was a one-to-20-man job.”

A feature of this is the reduced reliance on Kelly himself, a nomination for Hurler of the Year in each of the past two seasons. It was commonplace for him to post enormous totals and by the end of 2020 he had scored 1-53, 54 per cent of Clare’s total in the championship.

Last year the dependency had receded just a little, 3-41 from 6-92, 45 per cent, but he’s been averaging half of his team’s scoring total for the past two championships.

This campaign, although Kelly has been excellent the burden is being spread more equitably and his percentages after two matches are closer to a third (34 per cent). On Sunday his contribution was 0-10, four from play, and if he also registered four wides, one wasn’t an attempted score whereas another required the intervention of Hawk-Eye.

Important frees

He also scored important frees to keep the scoreboard ticking over and none of them were easy but his accuracy from distance was hugely reassuring to his team when under pressure in the final quarter.

This year, although his team aren't yet at full strength, Lohan has been able to welcome back two forwards, Shane O'Donnell and Peter Duggan, who hadn't been available last year and in Duggan's case, the year before. O'Donnell sustained concussion and recovery took a long time but the star of the 2013 All-Ireland win has returned in fine form.

There was surprise at how good his touch was after so long out and his return has restored one of the county’s great talents. He has been playing a slightly different role, deploying his pace at wing forward with a roving commission but he shines in attack where he works well with Kelly.

Duggan has been a revelation on his return from a couple of years in Australia. This was complicated by an ankle injury but since the championship started he has been in terrific form, rapidly getting back to the sort of levels that earned him an All Star in 2018.

The team spirit was also striking. After match, Lohan explained that reacting to adversity in a match was something they had worked on after the experience of last year when the sin-binning of Aidan McCarthy cost them a 0-2 to 2-4 deficit for the duration of his absence.

They needed this when Ian Galvin was red-carded in the 51st minute. Clare are considering their options on that and awaiting the referee's report to see what precise infraction led to his punishment.

Going down to 14 men happened just after the rapid concession of 1-1 but the team dug in, as Kelly explained.

“You’re always trying to replace an extra percent when you lose a player no matter who it is. Yeah, I think we got a few great scores, Diarmuid Ryan chipped in with a mighty score from the half-back line. Fitzy got a monster score as well.

“They’re important when you go down a man because all it takes is Cork to go on a bit of a run and get a couple of scores to get momentum and it’s hard to get it back then. But we always kept a five- or six-point lead going down the home straight, which was important. Just delighted to have two wins on the board.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times