LAST October the Clare senior manager Micheál McDermott gave trials to a footballer from Meath and one from Cavan, taking advantage of the rule allowing candidates to represent the county of their parents. McDermott assumed he was entitled to do so and by the time this was finally confirmed by Central Council, both players had long gone. They gave it an honest shot but the hurdles were manifold and ultimately too dissuasive.
One of them, Mick Ahern, played in goal for Meath in the 2008 Leinster championship and is a valued outfield player for his club Dunshaughlin. The other, Declan O'Reilly, comes from McDermott's native county and served Cavan at minor and under 21 level. Both simply found the journey and extent of the upheaval unsustainable.
"To be fair to Mick, he was really enthusiastic but his problem I think was that he's a coach in Dublin, employed full-time, and he found that most of his coaching was at weekends; while very enthusiastic, his work schedule would not allow it. He came down about three weeks in the month of October when we were working on trials," McDermott explains.
"Declan O'Reilly worked at home on the farm and found it difficult to get away, but he was a very committed young lad. They were two really committed and enthusiastic lads but logistically and time-wise it just wouldn't have worked. It was frustrating for them to have to say that."
The notion of going outside the normal parameters to strengthen the panel started playing on McDermott's mind when he witnessed Gareth 'Nesty' Smith in Cavan. Smith is a member of the Oliver Plunkett's club in Dublin and declared for Cavan under the
parentage rule; he stayed the distance and played championship for the county last summer. McDermott already knew O'Reilly's mother's Clare origins; he made enquiries and the player went for it.
"I just thought to myself maybe there's something there for us," explains McDermott. "Initially when I thought of it I didn't think you had to be a designated county. I thought it was just a matter of declaring for your parents' county. We then went to Clare County Board and they were very supportive. We were successful the last day at Central Council.
"I asked a lot of questions of Clare people who would know someone away, with mothers or fathers from Clare, and I went to see a number of championship matches to see the players. We had a target of players we wanted to look at and to be fair to every player we asked they welcomed the opportunity but for various reasons it just was not feasible."
McDermott asked around a dozen players in total and he is currently working with three. Niall Browne and Adrian Cahill, both from Kildare, and Dublin's David O'Connor have accepted the invitation and are training with the panel as they prepare for the upcoming league. None of the three were anxious to discuss the decision publicly because they don't consider themselves sufficiently established. But McDermott is happy with what he has seen so far and feels that to this point the venture has been worthwhile.
"It is a huge commitment but they seem to be willing to put it in. The funny thing about it, we had sat down as a management team, and we said if we get three or four out of this we will be doing well. Logistically, Clare is very far away from a lot of places. We have the three, which we are pleased with as well, and they are giving serious commitment."
Clare are hoping to earn promotion from Division 4 of the National Football League where they have been marooned for the last three seasons. Last year they were overtaken in the promotion race in the final rounds after setting the pace for most of the campaign. Twenty years ago John Maughan came on board and catapulted them to a first Munster championship in 75 years, but they have slipped back down the rankings since then and are now trailing behind all the other teams in Munster.
Niall Browne's Clare family connection is through his mother, who is a native of Cooraclare. By coincidence, he had an existing friendship with two of the Clare players, Gordon Kelly and Lawrence Healy, who all shared a house in Australia a few years ago. He also has a cousin, Rory Donnelly, on the panel. Browne, 28, plays for Two Mile House in the Kildare junior championship, captained the Kildare minor and under 21 teams, and had a brief run for the seniors in Kieran McGeeney's first year in charge, 2008, making two league appearances, including a midfield start against Derry.
Tommy O'Sullivan, manager of Two Mile House and a Kerry native, says: "If they (Clare) have two midfielders better than him good luck to them." He rates him a "good ball winner, a big, strong, physical player, aggressive and competitive". Browne was also centre-back and captain of the Kildare junior team last year.
"I'll just see how it goes. I mightn't even play a match for them yet," says Adrian Cahill, who won a senior football medal with Celbridge in 2008 and is a forward option for McDermott. "It's an opportunity to play county. And to be honest I love playing the game."
Cahill, 26, qualifies through his father, Brendan, a native of Doonbeg, whose own father, James, played for Clare and was part of the Doonbeg team that won a breakthrough championship in 1955. Brendan Cahill bought a house in Celbridge in 1972 and set up home but remained an avid follower of his home county's football and hurling fortunes.
The former Clare footballer Tommy Tubridy met him at Doonbeg's Munster club championship match against Stradbally and asked about his son's availability. It started from there.
Cahill also represented his county at minor and under 21 and as a child attended Clare matches with his father. The third candidate, David O'Connor, is 23 and plays for St Brigid's in Blanchardstown. His mother hails from Kilrush and he played there in underage competition during childhood family visits. All three are now eligible to play for Clare and will be in contention for selection for the McGrath Cup semi-final in Waterford today.
The current arrangement is that all three are expected to train with the main Clare panel one night a week and soon they will be training a second night in Dublin with some of the other Clare players based there. "To be fair to everyone, and this is what I liked about it, it wasn't a straightforward 'yes' straight away; they wanted time to think about it to see if it would work. I was actually glad to hear that, that they gave it some time," says McDermott.
"I did a lot of homework on each player before we asked them on board. To get their track record on commitment and what kind of characters they were; it's one thing having the football skills but we look for a certain kind of character, a very committed fella who will work very hard. The three lads, from talking to a number of people who I would have known in GAA circles, they fitted the bill; they were genuine lads.
"Each of the three, their Clare parents were obviously very strong Clare football supporters down the years and I think these lads have been brought up in an environment where Clare football was very important. You can see it in their commitment to training and in their want to represent Clare and wear the Clare jersey. Even the whole lead-up to last Saturday's Central Council meeting, they were very anxious that it would go well. I have to hold my hand up and say, the GAA, I always valued it, but they have been very good to Clare because we are working off a very small base of senior clubs and emigration is hitting us like every county. Who knows we may be still in Division 4 at the end of 2011. But it is our goal to move up the divisions."
The Clare players welcomed them with "open arms," McDermott adds. "They know they want to play for Clare and do well for Clare and they know what we are trying to do to improve Clare football and bring it forward. You can see the bit of pride in them that they want to represent the county of their mother or father. Lads like that have a close bond with a parent and it's a proud moment for their parents. The lads share in that."
It is too early to be evaluating the merits of the move. "Time will tell," states McDermott. "In my own view, Clare have a stronger panel than we had in 2010. Any time you get players who want to wear the jersey and hope to do well for Clare, I think it's a plus. The three lads are no different. They have the same drive."
Sunday Indo Sport