Thursday 21 November 2019

Banner needs raising as Clare battle to regain the form of 2013

After two successive defeats Fitzgerald has targeted the clash with Tipp to kickstart the season

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Some Allianz League games are more important than others and tomorrow's Clare-Tipperary clash in Ennis is one of them.

Despite being shown 'live' - a wise decision by TG4 - it will draw the biggest crowd of the day across hurling and football. That's not surprising for two reasons.

It's Clare's first 1A outing of the season in Ennis (how did they get two 'away' dates at the start while Cork had two home ties?) and it comes at a time when they are trying to avoid losing their opening three League games, a fate last suffered in 2009.

Context has everything to do with the significance of games at this time of year as League results in February-March won't be remembered once summer heats up and the championship takes over.

Tipperary lost three league games in a row last spring but it all became irrelevant once they stabilised and went on to become Kilkenny's closest pursuers for the big prizes.

Yet it was an unpleasant period last spring when they were trapped in a losing streak, during which they conceded an average of 4-17 to Kilkenny, Clare and Galway in three successive games. Frankly, they were a defensive shambles.

Manager Eamon O'Shea smiled his way through it all, declaring after each defeat the performances did not reflect the positivity and energy which was coursing through the training sessions. The message was simple: we'll get back on track.

The more sceptical wing of the Tipperary support swallowed the explanation with a large pinch of salt.

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But as the season later showed, O'Shea was right. Tipperary's problems could be sorted out and once they were, they became a new force, albeit one which just couldn't out-gun Kilkenny.

ADVERSITY

It's exactly a year ago this weekend since Clare hit Tipperary for 4-15 in Thurles, leaving O'Shea explaining that knowledge often derived from adversity.

"Last year we won games but it didn't tell us where we were in terms of personnel; this tells us exactly where we are," he said after the setback against Clare.

Meanwhile, Davy Fitzgerald stuck to the theme that inconsistency (Clare had lost to Dublin in the second round after beating Kilkenny first time out) was a by-product of winter-long All-Ireland celebrations.

By the end of the 1A programme, Clare were perched on top while Tipperary had scrambled into the fourth place, which was enough to earn them a quarter-final place.

It was at this stage that Clare and Tipperary parted wavelengths. Clare lost altitude at an alarming rate, winning only one more game from five attempts before their season ended in Wexford Park in July.

Tipperary reached the league and All-Ireland finals and while the season ended in disappointment, it created a genuine sense of anticipation about 2015.

That was not matched by the performance in the opening league game against Dublin last month, when Tipperary were not only soundly trimmed, but looked very much like a side that once the temperature was raised, couldn't wait to get out of Dublin 5,

A win over Galway two weeks ago restored confidence but now the big question is: which Tipperary will be released on to Cusack Park tomorrow?

An even bigger poser surrounds Clare. They need to start winning games to stop the confidence leaks. And the longer they go without achieving that, the harder it will be to re-fill the tanks.

It's a fact of sporting life that champions are looked at in a different way to the rest. Kilkenny's multi-decorated group lining up to clap Clare on to the pitch in Ennis for the first game of last year's league was a heavenly vision for the home supporters.

Their players had earned the right to be honoured, even by Kilkenny, who are usually the recipients of the salute routine at the start of the campaign. However, as Clare discovered in the course of the year, being All-Ireland champions only brings respect early on.

As the season progresses, they become a prized scalp, with opposition throwing more into the effort to unseat them. Clare found that out the hard way last year.

Defeats by Tipperary (league semi-final), Cork (Munster semi-final) and Wexford (All-Ireland qualifier) dramatically altered the perception of Clare.

Suddenly, they came under intense scrutiny, starting with Fitzgerald and extending through the entire camp. But then, that's how it goes nowadays. Winners are close to perfect, losers get it all wrong. The line between is so thin as to be almost invisible.

Plenty of observers who should have known spouted loads of nonsense after Clare's 2013 All-Ireland success about how they would dominate the championship for years to come. Meanwhile, Cork, who came so close to winning the drawn final, were being portrayed as naïve and predictable.

Opinions change very quickly nowadays so when Clare lost to Wexford last summer, the pendulum swung immediately. The Banner boys had, apparently, been found out. That's despite the likelihood that if Podge Collins hadn't been sent off after half an hour of the drawn game, Clare's season would have taken a completely different - and more productive - direction.

blurred

Successive defeats at the start of this league has further blurred the edges for Clare and Fitzgerald. The margins against Galway were so tight as to negligible, but when the one-point defeat was followed by a poor performance against Cork, Fitzgerald became the target for a torrent of idiotic criticisms on social media.

Seventeen months after winning the All-Ireland title - only the fourth in Clare's history - all had changed. Suddenly, Fitzgerald's means and methods were not only being questioned but ridiculed. It was over-reaction at its nonsensical worst.

Fitzgerald will ignore all that, which is what it deserves. Besides, there's a much more important dimension at play, one that needs urgent rectifying.

He realises that the longer Clare go without a win, the greater the pressure it will impose on the players. They know what it's like to win an All-Ireland but are now dealing with a new scenario where they are under-performing.

Prior to 2013, nobody knew if the squad was good enough to win an All-Ireland but after making the breakthrough, new parameters have been set.

So far, Clare haven't quite figured them out. Whatever the result of tomorrow's game, that process will remain on-going but it would be much easier to accelerate it if they beat Tipperary. Certainly, next weekend's clash with Dublin - also in Cusack Park - would take on a completely different complexion if Clare had two points on the board.

That's why we can expect the Clare squad to bring a near championship-like intensity to tomorrow's game.

"If we don't win the Tipp game, we are going to be fighting relegation. That's going to a massive game in Ennis," said Fitzgerald after the defeat by Cork.

He will have targeted tomorrow as a day to relaunch Clare as the force the hurling world know they can be. That's why you wouldn't want to be standing in the way of the Clare squad as they emerge from the dressing room.

This may be a league game in March but the determination levels will have a summer height. What follows will come close enough to replicating championship action.

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