The road to redemption starts in Thurles for Clare
Clare supporters are hoping that their team can produce a game to win and a game to mesmerise
The road to Thurles offers a first step towards redemption today for Clare, the team that once enchanted crowds but then lost its way over the last three summers. The mood has changed. Followers will travel with renewed expectation, they won't mind you saying that. They feel something significant may be in the air. A team about to be reclaimed. Coiled. Ready to spring.
Recent Munster Championship performances have been sorely inadequate, with one win in nine years from a county that last year won the National League and three years ago landed the All-Ireland. Some of that was carelessness. Some of it was misfortune. There is a strong constituency that will always hold that it was the fault of needlessly conservative game-plans from the previous management regime.
Which is why the anticipation drawing Clare people to Thurles is derived not only from a gilt-edged opportunity to defeat Limerick and reach a Munster final, but also an overwhelming need to see the team rediscover its true self. To see an unequivocal rejection of what went before, a repudiation of sweepers and the morbid hesitancy that went with it. They expect to see the team play like they know they can. Unbridled. Free.
"People watching the league games would have felt there was no great change in the style of play," admits Jim McInerney, the former county player whose son David is part of the Clare defence. "But really, to me, Sunday is judgement day. Clare were understrength for much of the league. They achieved the goal staying in Division 1. The word on the street is that they are going well. But we have a very bad track record in Munster for the last five or six years. Will they be able to overcome that and perform? We won't know till Sunday."
McInerney is encouraged by the potential influence of joint managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, who led the county to three All-Ireland under 21 titles in succession. "They have a phenomenal record with this particular group of players," says McInerney. "Gerry O'Connor is involved since they were under 14 and Donal since they were under 16. They have achieved stuff that has never been achieved in Clare before. If they weren't entitled to a crack at it, who was?
"They know the guys backwards. I know it is different at senior level, but they are picking from all the under 21 panels including the 2009 (All-Ireland-winning) one. And I think in fairness to them they used the league very well in that a lot of players got real game-time. They were not just going on towards the end of a match. As a result, I think they have really strengthened their panel. Lads who were regulars in the last five or six years will not be starting on Sunday. There are some big names off the team on Sunday."
Clare's modest league performances, culminating in a relegation play-off win against Dublin, are not seen as cause for concern. The emphasis has been solidly on the championship. They were also missing a number of players who have since returned to fitness, including McInerney's son, Shane O'Donnell, Pat O'Connor and Conor McGrath. In recent challenge matches they were exceptionally good. But one of those was a win over Cork, who later defeated Tipperary in the Munster Championship. All challenge games come with that warning.
Last year Clare embarked on a training camp after winning the league and looked devoid of spark when they ran into Waterford in early June. "They went to Breaffy House on a Wednesday and came home on a Sunday and my God I don't know what went on up there but they did not come back good out of it anyway," recalls McInerney. "They seemed overloaded. I felt it didn't seem to work for them. They didn't perform after that. I remember we played Limerick in Thurles (in the qualifiers) and struggled - we won it - but on the day we should have won it comfortably and we let Limerick back into it. It was a scary finish and then we were totally flat against Galway."
All expect to see a different Clare today, with lots of bounce, having revealed little of themselves during the spring. "If they play to their ability I think the sky is the limit for them. But they haven't done it for a number of years now. There is a certain amount of pressure on them to perform," says McInerney, who is currently working with the county under 16s.
"We have never actually gone out and taken hold against formidable opposition (since 2013). We have failed to beat Cork in championship. We staggered past Limerick last year and lost to them the year before. We failed to beat Wexford in 2014. And last year we were very flat against Galway.
"I don't know what has gone on in the camp. David would never discuss it with me. And I don't want to know. I genuinely don't know how they have gone about preparations, but you would hope that they will hurl more off the cuff, because there are such quality players on the team. When you take the likes of Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin in particular, why would you restrict what they do? They are phenomenal players. My one hope is that we will play our full-forward line close to the Limerick goal and get it in there fast and if they do I think we will get goals.
"Conor McGrath spent most of his time chasing lads around the middle of the field in the last two years, even though he is one of the best inside forwards in the game.
"When you set your team up where you have only one in the full-forward line you are conceding that you are not going to score many goals. I thought looking at it the last couple of years we were crowding our midfield, we had fantastic hurlers in that congested area who couldn't play in it and nobody in the full-forward line to score; it made no sense to me. We still conceded huge scores. We were killing ourselves."
Clare failed to score a goal in three of their four championship games last year, the exception being the qualifier match against Laois. The former Clare hurler John Callinan acknowledges that there is change afoot. "There is generally an expectation that their style of play will be different. I think that was shown in the league when we reverted to the more traditional six forwards. People had been complaining about the Davy system of seven backs, feeling that our forwards were being asked to carry a huge workload and the style of play wasn't attractive to the traditionalist."
He has "a certain sympathy" for Fitzgerald. "I think Davy thought we hadn't six players to go man-on-man in defence. I think he made that decision. He tried to dress it up as a kind of strategic thing for the forwards. Davy's own early management time with Waterford and the torching that Kilkenny gave them (in the 2008 All-Ireland final), I think that influences Davy to this day."
Callinan is not too bogged down on their provincial record, being a provincial system sceptic for a long time. "You won't hear me lauding Munster, I despise the provincial system. I think it does nothing for hurling. It has a status way above where it really is in the game. It was a Tipp/Cork institution. I have a bit of a thing about the whole Tipp/Cork/Kilkenny axis anyway. I don't think Muster Championships per se have been a particularly good instrument for the game of hurling.
"But the All-Ireland is what it's about. I was at the Cork-Tipp match and 30,000 people were there and they're not expecting more than 30,000 on Sunday whereas if they were knockout matches . . . I think people have voted with their feet.
"I would pay money every day to see Conor McGrath play and to see Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin play. People asked me in 2013 how would we get on and I said I don't know but we will be entertaining. And I think we will entertain - I don't know how we will get on."
John Minogue was involved in the management team when Clare won their first All-Ireland under 21 title in 2009. He is looking forward to a more conventional Clare structure paying dividends. "I think Cork, with their recent performance, might have brought a style offering that is maybe more suited to Clare players. They hurl on instinct rather than hurling to formula. I think it suits Clare hurlers better. I know you have to have tactics but I think the individuals should be able to express themselves. I think in recent years they were hemmed in by too much tactics, not just in Clare.
"In the league they were trying to tweak and change the patterns which I suppose have been embedded in the team for the last four or five years. I think they have found an easier style to hurl with. Conor McGrath coming back will be a big help."
Fergie O'Loughlin, brother of former Clare player, Ger, and a successful club coach, is also optimistic about this being a new and more successful chapter. "With this new management team in place I do think we can bring more flair and attacking form. Even though they are without Paul Kinnerk who I feel deserves a massive amount of credit to do with the way they played.
"My bottom line is that this has to be the year. If we win we are in an All-Ireland quarter-final. I think if we are in a Munster final we have a great chance of winning it this year."
The league showed evidence that old habits may be dying hard. "And there is a connection with Dónal Óg (Cusack)," says O'Loughlin. "I think he was engrossed in the way Clare played with Davy. He liked short puck-outs. He liked using the ball rather than hitting it away. We may still see short passing and playing off the shoulder, I don't see it as a major problem; it is just when you are doing it too often. You have to be able to expand your game. We just became very predictable in every game.
"I am quietly optimistic. I am a little bit worried too, because we haven't seen this Clare team play the way we feel they can in the league. We know the talent is there but we haven't seen them express it yet. We are going on the back of two or three challenge games."
Limerick, he feels, have gone in the other direction, in spite of Kinnerk's influence there as a coach since leaving Clare. In 2009, after a bad defeat for the Clare minors from Waterford, Gerry O'Connor got Kinnerk involved, before the Limerick native graduated to the Clare senior set-up that won the All-Ireland four years ago.
O'Loughlin expects Limerick to revert to old-style Limerick hurling: direct and in-your-face. Clare, their followers will hope, can produce a game to win and a game to mesmerise.
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