Vincent Hogan: 'Colm Collins has anchored Clare football in a place they have no history'
Manager has transformed Clare’s football fortunes in his six years at the helm – but a win over Meath tomorrow would deliver them to new heights
Maybe the real work of Colm Collins' life will only be apparent in the disorientation inevitable when his time with Clare is over.
Tomorrow in Portlaoise, they again go chasing the last day of their old lives. Clare in the 'Super 8s' would be a brazenly romantic thing. An act of glorious impudence. It's a long shot, undeniably, given their recent history with Meath (consecutive league defeats of 12-, 14- and five-point margins), but anyone who leaves a footprint in Collins's world knows how clearly he will see opportunity here.
After six seasons at the helm, he has anchored Clare football in a place they have no history.
They were a Division 4 team when he took over in those gauzy months just after Davy Fitzgerald delivered the hurlers to All-Ireland glory.
And a lot of those hurlers were on the Cratloe team he coached to a first ever county football title and, subsequently, to within a point of Dr Crokes in the Munster club final.
The Ennis evening in 2013 they won their first Jack Daly Cup, the Cratloe players went straight into a cryotherapy chamber, then a pool to fast-track recovery. Within 24 hours, they were back in Cusack Park, playing Ballinacourty in the Munster semi-final.
Acknowledging the scheduling as "an absolute mess", Collins still found no truck with the seductions of self-pity. Cratloe beat the Waterford champions by two points and would be 33/1 outsiders against Dr Crokes in the subsequent Munster final, yet led the game by a point with two minutes remaining before being squeezed out on the line.
A son of Kilmihil in the West, where - as he puts it - "football is a religion", his work with Cratloe in the South-East (they won the county title again in 2014) has gone some distance to changing the DNA of Clare football.
Enda Coughlan was ten years a Clare footballer by the time Collins came into his world. He retired as a player after the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry, but is now a Clare selector.
For him, Collins's work has been that of a priceless missionary.
"When Colm came in, he said he wanted us to be in the top eight teams if we could," explains Coughlan. "I suppose people thought he was mad saying that. You have to remember we were years trying to get out of Division 4 when he took over.
"Now for Clare to be playing Division 2 football consistently is massive.
"And it's a lot of Colm's work in fairness that has brought football to the eastern side of the county. Basically, he's just got everyone to buy into the right things, getting the good players to make the right decisions, both on and off the field."
In a perfect world, he would have access to all of the best footballers in Clare tomorrow, but that's not how life works in a place where hurling is so revered.
His own son, Podge, would be an automatic selection if available as would others like Conor Cleary and Cathal McInerney. Diarmuid Ryan and Mikey O'Neill might get game-time too if their commitment hadn't been to the hurling squad managed by Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor.
There had been some murmurings after the hurlers' early eviction from this year's championship that Collins might re-seed his options accordingly, but he resisted the temptation out of loyalty to the existing squad.
He is known as a big admirer of the New Zealand rugby philosophy that "better people make better All Blacks", often name-checking the James Kerr book 'Legacy - What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of Life'.
A part of it that resonates most strongly is that of, even on their biggest days, the All Blacks having the humility to sweep the dressing-room floor before they leave.
He loved the idea of Sonny Bill Williams handing his World Cup medal over to a young fan, an act communicating the importance of the journey as distinct from the glory of reaching a grand destination.
He once observed of Kerr's book: "When things were broken and they went about fixing it, that was the emphasis: better people make better All Blacks. No point having a kid on the pitch who can score ten points if he's acting the thug and breaking windows in the school. Everything has to be developed."
Even on arguably Clare's best day on his watch, the 2016 Division 3 league final win against Kildare in Croke Park, Collins had less an eye on the glamour of the moment than the progress it italicised.
"Well, it (winning a cup in Croke Park) is nice" he told reporters after. "But promotion was the really vital bit. Because it's so important to play at as high a level as you can. That's the way you improve, by testing yourself against better players."
Insisting on resolute professionalism in Clare's standards of preparation, he has also imported high-level coaches to their dressing-room, people like Ephie Fitzgerald, Paudie Kissane and Mick Bohan.
When Podge committed 100 per cent to the Clare hurlers in 2017, his father understood and acknowledged the practical imperatives behind the decision.
A hurling All-Star in 2013, Podge had struggled to rediscover his best form when a dual county man in 2014 and, after suffering a cruciate in 2015, was back on the dual treadmill in 2016. It was probably asking too much.
"They make up their own minds," he said of his middle son's decision. "Anybody that's with you has to be there because he wants to be there. I don't think it's a major thing. I treat Pádraic the same as I treat anybody. He made his decision, that's it and you get on with it."
Collins's eldest son, Seán, was one of Clare's stand-out players the last day against Westmeath as - almost inevitably - was Gary Brennan, captain and man of the match in that 2016 league final against Kildare. Yet, three years into their lives as a Division 2 team, Clare are still striving for consistency.
If Kerry were probably the last opponents they needed to face when reaching that All-Ireland quarter-final in 2016, their final league table positions in the three season since (5th, 3rd, 6th) hint at a dip in the graph that Collins will not welcome.
Clare needed a remarkable final day win against Tipperary in Thurles (they were three points down in the 70th minute) to avoid relegation back to Division 3, communicating what Collins himself called "a will to win you simply can't coach into a team" to score an unanswered 1-2 at the death.
Coughlan sees the challenge in front of them as relatively clear-cut. "For this team, I think the only thing they really have to do is take out a big scalp" he says. "And that's what we'd be looking for hopefully. If we could take a big scalp and get into the Super 8s, it would be massive for Clare football.
"Look, we're under no illusions either. We have only 12 senior clubs in Clare at the moment, not a massive pick. I think we've some of the best footballers in Ireland on our team, but we really need to try to take this next step.
"The work Colm's done, he's proven that we can compete with anyone out there when we play well. Now, when we don't play well, we're likely to be beaten by anyone as well. So we have to get our game in order.
"If we do, we'll be a match for anyone. If we don't, we won't go any further. But I know him, he won't rest.
"He wants us to go higher and this is another real chance to do that now."