'If Rosol can beat Nadal, then Clare can beat Cork'
IF the Irish cricket team were good enough to flatten England and Pakistan in recent years and the 100th ranked tennis player Lukas Rosol can stun world No 2 Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon, there's no compelling reason why Clare footballers cannot upset the overwhelming odds in Sunday's Munster final against Cork.
That's the positive line underpinning Clare's attempt to win their third Munster title on the 20th anniversary of their last great triumph when they beat Kerry in 1992. The man leading the upbeat advance on the Gaelic Grounds is team manager Micheal McDermott, who has set his squad a realistic target for their clash with the All-Ireland favourites.
"Rosol played the game of his life against Nadal last week and look where it took him. That's what I'm hoping for the Clare players on Sunday. I want them to go out and play the game of their lives and see what happens," he said.
"If it's good enough to beat Cork, great. If not, there will be no regrets, provided everyone -- on and off the pitch -- has performed to the very best of their ability. It's all about having a goal, working towards it and giving yourself every chance of getting there. Never lose sight of your dream."
Having failed to win any game in Munster or the All-Ireland qualifiers since 2008, relatively few backed Clare to beat Limerick in the provincial semi-final last month, but they ignored conventional wisdom and turned in a fine performance which took them home by a point.
They did it in the most dramatic circumstances. Clare led by nine points at half-time, but Limerick reeled them in calmly in the second half and, having wiped out the deficit, took the lead with four minutes remaining. It looked like another classic example of Clare being on the wrong side of a close call, but, this time, they weren't taking 'no' for an answer and two late points from full-forward David Tubridy won the day.
It was Tubridy at his vintage best, but then he's a class act. Together with midfielder Gary Brennan, they were the two current Clare players chosen on the county's best team of the last 50 years in the Irish Independent's 'GAA Giants' promotion two months ago.
Tubridy's late burst against Limerick proved crucial as Clare finally enjoyed a day when the gods viewed them favourably after mocking them over the last few years.
In the 2010 National League, Clare lost to Limerick by a point after hitting the post late on in a game where a draw would have been enough to earn them promotion to Division 3. Three months later, they led Offaly by seven points in an All-Ireland qualifier in Tullamore, but were hauled back to parity before missing a late chance to snatch victory. Clare lost by three points in extra-time.
Last year, they lost by a point to Down in the qualifiers after having a goal-bound shot saved late on and the misery continued last spring when it took a finger top save by a Wicklow defender in the final game to deny Clare the draw which would have been enough to win promotion to Division 3.
"Luck certainly hadn't gone our way over recent years, so we'd have felt we were due a break in the Limerick game," said McDermott. "The way the draw was set up, everybody knew it was a year for Limerick, Waterford or ourselves to have a shot at the final. That was a huge incentive and the response from the squad has been incredible. They deserve to get their chance on the big day."
It would, of course, be the shock of the new Millennium if Clare were to beat Cork, who apart from being one of the top forces for several years, beat the Banner by 15 points in last year's Munster semi-final.
Still, Clare will be hugely encouraged by Limerick's performance in recent Munster finals, having run Kerry to three points two years ago and Cork to a point a year earlier. "It's not often Division 4 beat Division 1 in the championship. Not just any Division 1 team either, but the champions for the past two seasons," said McDermott.
"We all know how good Cork are, but we can't dwell too much on that. Our concentration has to be on our own game, doing things as efficiently as possible and working off the plans we've made. If you focus too much on the opposition, you put yourself at a disadvantage. Of course, you can't ignore Cork's strengths, but you can't allow them to dictate how you think either."
He is ideally placed to remind his players that being underdogs against Cork can be harnessed in a positive manner and yield surprising results. He was a selector alongside manager John O'Keeffe when Clare beat Cork, then managed by Larry Tompkins, by a point in the 1997 Munster semi-final in Ennis. He spent a decade as Limerick junior manager and led Kilmurry-Ibrickane to AIB Munster club glory in 2009 before losing the final to St Gall's (Antrim) on St Patrick's Day 2010.
A native of Shercock, Co Cavan, he has been immersed in Clare football since moving to the county 18 years ago and is now attempting make a really significant mark on Banner history.
The opposition could scarcely be more powerful, as their odds of 1/100 proves, but with few outside the Clare camp believing that an upset is likely, it's an occasion which McDermott and his squad will savour without the weight of expectation.
"These are the days that players dream of. Before we beat Limerick, it was four years since Clare won a championship game -- now we're in a Munster final. And, even if we lose, we'll have another chance in the qualifiers.
"We're not thinking that way, mind you. Sport has a habit of throwing up surprises all the time, so why shouldn't it happen to us? You've got to think positive and we certainly are," he said.