Monday 23 October 2017

Clare not yet at crisis but alarm bells at the ready

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Make no judgment until the ball speeds up," cautioned Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea as he peeled away from his post-match briefing in Semple Stadium on Sunday evening. "Then make all the judgments you want."

They were wise words in the context of how O'Shea and Tipperary dug themselves out of a hole in last year's NHL Division 1A campaign.

Remember how they were hit with a 16-point swing in the second round against Kilkenny and how Tipperary subsequently went on to lose to Clare and Galway before benefiting from Dublin's generosity in the final game.

But O'Shea's words also had a context in what had gone in Pairc Ui Rinn the night before. Clare lost to a resurgent Cork by 10 points, pinning them to the bottom of Division 1A after two rounds and leaving the road to recovery a very difficult one in a such a cut-throat competition. One more wrong move.

Worse still, it left Anthony Daly expressing some outrage that the "snipers" were already lining up Davy Fitzgerald in the county.

Clare have hardly dipped to that level of crisis, even if defeat in Cork has left them without a win in six competitive matches.

Their league quarter-final victory over Laois last March was their last success. Since then Tipperary beat them in a league semi-final, Cork knocked them out of Munster, before Wexford drew with and then beat them in the championship.

Six games without a win in either Kilkenny or Tipperary would generate quite a storm. In Clare it is hardly acceptable either, and the glow from their 2013 All-Ireland triumph has begun to dim just a little. The romance and innocence of it has already been eroded.

It is far from a lost cause, however, in this campaign. Two years ago Kilkenny lost their opening two league games, against Galway and Tipperary, and still came storming through to reclaim the title in emphatic style.

Expectancy

Perhaps the pressure and expectancy on Clare comes not from their 2013 All-Ireland triumph, but from the swell of successive All-Ireland U- 21 victories over the last three years.

A far greater consistency is expected from such a golden generation of young hurlers, and it doesn't allow for such dips in form.

Perhaps it is taking time for backroom changes, forced by the departure of Paul Kinnerk for a year and the stepping back of Joe O'Connor as strength and conditioning coach for the previous three years, to bed in properly.

Kinnerk has been highly respected for his work with the Clare seniors and has worked in tandem with the U-21 management over the three years. He has earmarked a return in 2016 but in the meantime has taken over the football academy in Limerick, a position that will require more than just a year to implement strategy.

The effect of the departure of Podge and Sean Collins, and subsequently Cathal McInerney, to the football squad is difficult to gauge but despite the diplomacy shown by both sides in statements and comments since the decision was taken last year, it's hard to imagine that the impact on morale has been just as great as the physical impact of losing key players.

Friendships between many of these young men can carry the strength of tungsten.

To lose three players of such quality was not good business, regardless of the fundamentals of commitment to one code only.

The Collins brothers found themselves in an almost unique position.

If they had to choose between codes how they could realistically have opted for anything other than their father's team?

Little things Clare have been trying haven't come off for them. Colm Galvin's placement at half-forward was worth a look but it's hard to imagine him working out anywhere other than midfield over the next 10 years. If it's not broken, is there any reason to try and fix it?

Conor McGrath didn't start either game and that has probably backfired on the management, though their intentions in trying to preserve a player who had such a hectic few months with Cratloe between September and November is clear and admirable.

The poor quality of the pitches appears to have been a greater factor in the opening two rounds of the league than it has been in any previous years and as much as that doesn't suit any team, it may particularly affect a Clare team that thrives more on speed and movement than physical zeal.

What is abundantly clear now is how much Clare miss Tony Kelly. The value of the 2013 Hurler of the Year has soared in his absence, and his recovery from a hamstring injury can't come quick enough.

Clare's most pressing problem is to mend their full-back line and make it a lot more secure than it has been.

Domhnall O'Donovan, Jack Browne and later Seadna Morey all had trouble as Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan cut loose so impressively.

A week earlier in Salthill it was arguably their most troubled line too against a two-man full-forward line that Galway deployed, though Pat O'Connor's presence as a sweeper at one stage did provide noticeable security. David McInerney's return, like Kelly's, takes on a different perspective.

The situation is far from irretrievable as the league has shown so often in the past.

Four points has been enough not just to survive but to even make quarter-finals in recent years and that may be the case in a division that has no apparent weak link.

With Tipperary up next in Cusack Park it should be an easy sell to the dressing-room for Fitzgerald.

Nothing like their biggest rivals coming to town to get the pulses racing again. It can't come quick enough for them.

Irish Independent

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