Monday 16 September 2019

Cleary breaks down Banner's western divide

Conor Cleary has had to bide his time to earn starting role in the Clare team. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Cleary has had to bide his time to earn starting role in the Clare team. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Like many dual counties, the divide between east and west or any combination of the four cardinal points usually mirrors a divide between hurling and football.

In Clare, the west has traditionally been the football heartland, preserving the east and Galway border areas for hurling.

But there are rare exceptions. Through the work of Tony Kelly's father Donal, Ballyea were able to recruit a few decent hurlers to help their push to last year's All-Ireland club final with captain Stan Lineen, the current Clare footballer, Pearse Lillis and Damien Burke all making valuable contributions.

But at inter-county level, west Clare graduates to the Banner senior team have been few and far between.

Conor Cleary has bucked that trend. While his twin brother Eoin has developed into one of Clare's finest footballers, starring in their qualifier win over Offaly on Sunday, Conor deviated to take a different path.

Through his parents' encouragement he first hurled with Kilmaley, the closest hurling club to Miltown-Malbay where he grew up, but it was schooling in St Flannan's, where he met up with and played with Tony Kelly, Jack Browne and Peter Duggan, that really fuelled his appetite for the game.


Like Mark Ellis in Cork and Daithi Burke in Galway, coming from a traditionally strong football area hasn't impeded progress as old barriers and perceptions are broken down.

"I was playing as much hurling as Tony Kelly and Jack Browne and those lads in school, I would have been pally with them," Cleary recalled.

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"So in that regard, it wasn't as if I was isolated in the west for a couple of years. I was basically living in Ennis for six years and got great scope with the standard that the boys were playing at. That brought me on too.

"I took great confidence from my final year (of) minor. I was lucky to play centre-back with Clare and got a feel for it. That kind of made my decision that I wanted to try and make the Clare senior hurling panel.

"I suppose a lot of lads would be telling me, 'why don't you just play football?' and that I was wasting my time. But it was all in good spirit though, and to be fair the club is great, they always back me."

Cleary has taken time to develop into the imposing half-back he has been, especially during this year's Munster round-robin campaign.

He is five years with the senior squad, having been a member of the 2013 and 2014 All-Ireland U-21 winning squads. But it was only in 2016 that he made his senior championship debut.

"I was trying my best to get on it but it was just down to the strength of the panel. I had some developing to do too from 2014. I wasn't ready to play senior maybe the year after. I was two or three years on the panel before I was able to play, to be up to the physicality and speed of it," he accepted. "(There was) a strength differential but also the speed of my hurling had to come up.

"I knew what I needed to do, so I just worked on that in my first two years on the panel and the quality of player I was playing against inside here (at training), that was always going to improve me."

There has been much made about the reconnection between the Clare team and support which has manifested, especially around their two home games in Ennis against Waterford and Limerick.

But Cleary sensed the surge in Thurles in the closing stages of their win over Tipperary as such a defining factor in their season. "I remember in Semple Stadium with about 10 minutes to go, the Clare crowd really got behind us," he said.

"Even on the last day (against Limerick) in the parade going around, you could really sense the positivity from the crowd. It felt like there were hundreds of Clare lads togged out to play for Clare. We used that then with the intensity we brought then, we really fed off the confidence that they had in us."

The round-robin series is here to stay, he hopes, and feels there was no dilution of the competitive Munster Championship edge.

"The games we've played this year have been the most intense since I've been involved anyway. Because when you're playing at home, you really want to get the win for your fans and that brings its own intensity."

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