Donal Óg Cusack keeps the Clare pot boiling
With big games looming in the spring, time is short for this generation of players to fulfil their potential
A few days ago, with the usual ceremony - that is, none at all - Brian Cody had it confirmed that he would be 'staying on' for an 18th season as Kilkenny hurling manager.
Though a good deal less successful in 2015, Davy Fitzgerald had his position approved with almost indecent haste in the wake of a championship exit to Cork, and while there were clear misgivings about the hurried choreography, that unsettling chapter found a conclusion of sorts during the earlier part of last week. It has come in the guise of Donal Óg Cusack, who is vacating the pundit's chair, and retiring from play, for a shot at top-level inter-county coaching.
Sources indicate that the news caught the players completely by surprise, but their response is understood to be overwhelmingly positive and the appointment signals that the work towards restoring Clare as a serious championship bidder can begin in earnest.
In his punditry, Cusack did his chances of such an alliance no harm with positive declarations on Clare's style of play and, more appositely, Fitzgerald's management. His assessments weren't entirely without reservation but at the end of the 2015 season he could still argue that Fitzgerald's combative, sparky nature would be beneficial in a place like Cork, whereas in the Clare context it needed some figure of restraint working alongside.
He may see himself as that figure to some extent but those favourable evaluations of Clare during a time when they failed to perform demonstrated a sympathy for Fitzgerald's predicament, and character, which paved the way for this surprise union.
While the last two years have been a hard learning experience for the Clare players, the manager has also been going through his own piecemeal journey of self-discovery. Part of this increased self-awareness led to him soliciting a PR professional to advise on media interviews. His match-day sideline persona remains a work in progress. What some pardon as 'passion' whenever he goes haywire, others see as a needlessly distracting energy-wasting strop.
But the focus on him is gradually, and maybe deliberately, being diluted; Cusack's arrival may be seen as an attempt to soften it further. Less anxiety and tighter discipline, on and off the field, is something Clare must continue to strive for if they hope to regain the dazzling form which has deserted them.
Perhaps the change will also bring out the best in Fitzgerald and he will be the better for Cusack's company and counsel. If so, that can only have positive effects for all concerned. Having someone well disposed to the man in charge is obviously beneficial for any working relationship, but it is hard to think of one where it is more essential than this case.
Two big personalities appear to have a rapport, at least from the outset, and now it will remain to be seen how that unfolds and the different lines of responsibility weave together. If Fitzgerald felt under siege to some extent, he has brought in a strong ally whom he can feel comfortable working with as they try, again, to transfer all that potential into winning a championship.
Each team and management set continual improvement as their shared goal. Clare have not managed to satisfy those ambitions over the last two years, with one championship win over Offaly from a team that came off the back of an All-Ireland title in 2013 - nailed by an emerging side that one felt, if handled efficiently, could only improve.
The dip that has included demotion to the second tier of the league placed renewed pressure and focus on the management and led to entirely justifiable calls for a review of their performances. This was bluntly ignored. There is an unavoidable perception that the interests of the management were paramount in how that process was governed.
Cusack isn't the only addition to the Clare backroom team, but he is the one attracting the headlines. The urgency of finding a name capable of commanding player respect, and firing their imagination, was made all the more immediate with the news that Paul Kinnerk, the 2013 coach who had a close relationship with the players, would not be returning in 2016. Kinnerk is instead offering his services to the Limerick football coaching programme.
With Kinnerk out of the picture - a valued link to previous minor and under 21 success that involved many of the key players central to Clare's prospects - the pressure was clearly on to pull a rabbit from the hat. Out popped Cusack. For Fitzgerald, regarded at times as being too possessive and over-wrought, this is a serious delegation and perhaps a move on his part to a more directorial role.
The standard argument in favour of Fitzgerald being retained, the 2013 All-Ireland win, is starting to wear thin and they will face critical matches in the spring, against Limerick and Wexford most notably, which will bring a pressure to perform and get the results that have been elusive in the last two seasons.
The overriding fear is that this generation of talented players will not get to fulfil their true potential. Cody's line about Henry Shefflin getting the maximum out of his talents springs to mind as the template to which all serious players, and teams, aspire.
Beyond the spring, a rejuvenated Waterford are waiting for Clare in the Munster semi-final. Promotion from Division 1B and a win in Munster can wheel public opinion back in the management's favour, but none of these matches are sure bets based on Clare's slide from the heights of 2013.
What reassures is that the players themselves show no indication that their goals have lessened, nor their willingness to sacrifice and prepare to the degree necessary to regain that winning habit. The motivation to prove to themselves that 2013 wasn't an anomaly, aided by the absence of Tipperary and Kilkenny from their roadmap, should not be found wanting.
With Cusack, and the other bits in place, there is no reason why the atmosphere can't be conducive to those aspirations. Injuries, the loss of Podge Collins and the disciplinary issues on and off the field all contributed to a gradual deflation of spirit and confidence, some players being ghosts of their former selves.
Finding a system of play that allows Clare deliver their full potential is one of the major challenges. There are means of obtaining the room and fluency in the opponents' half of the field which don't require breaking from the convention of six forwards, but the origins of Clare's field positioning lie in flagrant goal concession in the earlier part of the Fitzgerald regime, and immediately before he came on board.
Other mitigating factors for their troubles deserve mention, such as the enormous loss in the Limerick game during the summer gone of Conor McGrath, who was their best forward in 2014 and whose personal performance level never dropped on the previous year. The absence last season of Collins, a key component in making the team fizz in 2013, should also be recognised.
Whether Collins, now that he has declared his intentions to return in a dual capacity, can respond after serious injury and time away, is unclear. But having him back is a major benefit and another concession on Fitzgerald's part. In this case, there has to be sympathy with the management position. It cannot be possible, however desirable, to do both games full justice. And anything below full pelt is a concession no manager ideally wants to make.
Aside from Cusack there have been other less highlighted but interesting changes. Aonghus O'Brien, a hurler from Broadford who was with the Limerick minor team last year, is regarded as a good coach and valuable acquisition. The strength and conditioning domain, a critical part of the modern support fleet, has been embellished by the capture of a Waterford man with boxing coaching credentials. Jimmy Payne has an impressive resume and was involved with the Waterford hurlers in 2008.
This will help fill the hole left by the departure of Joe O'Connor, who was a significant influence and trusted by the players, with links back to the county minors of 2006. O'Connor has moved to take up a job as Limerick's strength and conditioning coach under TJ Ryan.
The Cork-Clare coaching link travels back to Justin McCarthy's arrival at Fr Harry Bohan's behest in the 1970s which, though of a vastly different age, has parallels to Cusack's journey. McCarthy felt unwanted in his own county and was unpopular in some quarters for leaving to aid another county, then a serious Munster rival. The difference is that McCarthy had already built up a solid body of work, having coached Cork to a Munster title in 1975.
Cusack has it all to prove, but a guy has to start somewhere. For now it has got them talking, stirred up interest and whetted the appetite for the road ahead. Meanwhile, in Kilkenny, there's hardly a word.
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