More than just pride at stake
Despite the bookies' odds, Clare manager Micheál McDermott is remaining positive, writes Damian Lawlor
ON the Tuesday morning after his Clare team beat Limerick in an epic Munster semi-final, Micheál McDermott pulled into the Doora-Barefield pitch at 6.0am. Relentless sheets of rain fell on him as he ran from his car to the dressing room.
After letting his players blow off steam for two days, this was a test of their hunger. Sometimes it's hard to find a chip on your shoulder when everyone is slapping you on the back.
"The boys celebrated that Saturday night after beating Limerick and our captain Alan Clohessy turned 30 the following day so they celebrated with him too," McDermott says. "But we decided to call training for the following Tuesday morning at 6.30 just to see what response we got. Apart from our four guys based in Dublin, every other member of the squad was present.
"In fact, three of the lads had been there since half five receiving physio -- John Hayes, Dave Russell and Dave Tubridy -- and those were guys with the furthest distance to travel. I left that session knowing that all my fellas want this afternoon is to do ourselves justice. That's really our only target.
"We put Limerick out of our minds and put all the focus firmly on July 8. We told the lads to disregard this whole thing about reaching a final -- they must do themselves proud. That was the message we imparted. It was the first time we ever had an early session, a once-off, but I have to say it worked really well."
Focusing on a performance only is the most sensible approach the team can take -- one bookie has them priced as high as 22/1 to win -- and in that regard McDermott says the signals are positive.
"They have been all year," he notes. "We've never trained as hard. I would definitely say we've trained as hard as any team in the country and we've used sports science to a huge degree this time around which I mightn't have always dwelt upon so much. We're learning more about our players all the time. Two weeks ago we played a challenge and tracked our wing-backs with the GPS system. They ran eight-and-a-half kilometres each. To cope with Cork today, they'll have to add to that and our midfield and wing-forwards will probably have to cover even more ground.
"But these lads have responded to every challenge we set them since losing to Wicklow and missing out on promotion in the final round of the league. It might seem like a very small thing to your readers, but when our trainer Michael Cahill saw that the players wanted to do a warm-down, even after a heart-breaking loss like that in Aughrim, it was a signal to us that these guys really wanted to get things right for championship.
"Maybe in years gone by some lads would have walked in, togged out and maybe they wouldn't have rejoined the panel for the championship. But these lads have stuck together all year long. They've just trained too hard not to back each other."
When McDermott arrived from Cavan in the mid-1990s and set up home in Ennis, the local football landscape was always going to be visited but he hardly had his new house furnished when Tom Downes, the gatekeeper of Clare football, approached him. Downes asked McDermott to meet John O'Keeffe, the county's senior manager at the time.
McDermott agreed and served as a selector on the 1997 team that beat Cork in the Munster semi-final but lost the final to Kerry after a fortuitous Pa Laide goal. At the same time he took the Clare juniors and managed them for the next 10 years. Luck deserted him for most of that period -- they lost five Munster finals to teams that progressed to win All-Irelands.
The wheel eventually turned for him, though, when the seniors let a nine-point lead slip against Limerick but eventually managed to sneak through to today's final by the narrowest of margins.
"The finish to that game was extremely bad for the heart," he acknowledges. "We went through so many different emotions that night. Our first-half display was very satisfying and we were very relaxed at the break. Still, at the back of my mind I was worried that despite being nine points up Limerick had wasted goal chances. I knew there would be a kick. But I didn't expect them to go a point up with three minutes left."
McDermott reckons that an interception made by the combined efforts of John Hayes and Gordon Kelly prevented another certain score for Limerick as normal time ran out.
It also stopped the rot -- their intervention ensured a score at the other end before Gary Brennan made three crucial catches to set up another score and ultimately see them home in a breathless finish.
"You don't know what to think amidst a finale like that," he says. "After the disappointment of losing in Aughrim, that was definitely the biggest evening I had in charge."
Clare's season could have been so much different had they lost to Limerick. Players might have hit Boston, taken holidays or gone back to their clubs.
"Yeah, it's a fine line," McDermott admits. "Had we lost the match, I don't think those players would have recovered and we might have been lucky to get five at training the following Tuesday morning. That result alone could have been the end of careers and Clare football as a whole would not have recovered for two years."
But now that they've reached this stage they don't want to flop. So, McDermott, Liam McHale and his crew will have to come up with something special to soak up the pressure and somehow counteract a prolific, consistent side.
Still, the manager is confident. "All the pundits are giving Cork an easy win and no one is really giving Clare a chance but that plays well in our minds," he says. "Expectations are low but my players have serious inner belief. They want to be here and they want to perform, to show the country what they're capable of. It's a pride thing. I think we'll see a big performance.
"We can't control what Cork do. They are so formidable that what we just have to focus on is leaving nothing behind on the pitch. We have two chances to make the All-Ireland series and that's what we're looking at."
Their cause could have been helped if other quality footballers in the county -- who chose not to make the commitment -- had signed up earlier in the season. It's a problem that has been in the county for some time. Indeed, McDermott managed club giants Kilmurry-Ibrickane to great success but still couldn't get some of their top performers to line out with the county side.
"Yes, there are lads out there good enough to play with us who haven't committed because of sacrifices that need to be made," McDermott accepts. "But I understand that -- we've worked five or six days a week and lads have made sacrifices with their nutrition, social and personal life, they've done a lot beyond the training field and word of that has seeped around the county. Other players decided that they weren't prepared to make those sacrifices and asked what there was to look forward to in Division 4, and I can understand that. The truth is I'm more focused on the likes of David Russell and Ger Quinlan, two stalwarts who have been there for years but are still willing to give more.
"Every year you must get on the phone and sell Clare football to certain fellas. Your success rate depends on how the year before went and it also depends on how flexible employers are. A lot of our lads are gardaí and most of those guys have taken annual leave for training sessions or matches -- that's the reality of it all. It's a huge sacrifice -- whether you're married or not -- and when you're in Division 4 not everyone can see the point.
"I have no problem understanding why that is but I try to outline every alternative to these players and make them see the benefits. They'll improve as a club player and probably as a person too."
Today's final is the archetypal gods-and-minnows affair. Turning the old order on its head is an extremely tall order but Clare deserve this shot at the title. The real challenge lies in the years ahead, however. They must take this story further.
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