Saturday 17 August 2019

It took a while for players and fans to gel - O'Connor

Banner's joint manager feels squad are in a good place ahead of Walsh Park clash

Clare joint-manger Gerry O’Connor is congratulated by supporters following the Banner’s Munster SHC win over Tipp in Thurles last summer. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Clare joint-manger Gerry O’Connor is congratulated by supporters following the Banner’s Munster SHC win over Tipp in Thurles last summer. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Even in defeat there are little things that can be salvaged.

So when Clare left Walsh Park after a heavy league quarter-final loss in March, in what was a dress rehearsal for Sunday's Munster SHC opener at the same venue, there were valuable lessons learned.

They travelled down on the day of the game, leaving Clare that morning and not returning until late that night. They were off-colour, conceding 31 points on their way to seeing their league hopes go down in flames.

Leaving Waterford that day, joint-manager Gerry O'Connor knew they'd have to do it slightly differently for the championship.

"There is the cost factor as well but we travelled down on the morning of the game against Waterford in Walsh Park in the National League and we definitely knew that that wasn't the right thing to do."

The Banner beat Waterford in Ennis last year but with the Déise enjoying home comforts once more after a mini facelift in Walsh Park, the statistics are very much in their favour.

Allowing for the Déise's nomad status in 2018, only once in the 10 matches in last year's Munster championship did a team lose on home soil.

"It's a massive boost for them but it also puts massive pressure on a team at home," O'Connor continued.

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"If you don't start very well and there is this weight of expectation on you. I remember the Munster U-21 final in 2012 up in Cusack Park and we were expected to put in a huge performance and maybe win easy.

"That was a very unusual place for a Clare team to be in a Munster final but as the game progressed there was an edginess and a tension in the ground because the crowd went silent.

"They could see we were up a point and down a point. That's the other side of playing away: if you can get in a good start and get the team under pressure that is playing at home that puts the pressure back on them."

"The only way we can look at it is the championship last year and, whether it was Munster or Leinster, it was very obvious that the home teams definitely seemed to have an advantage and the further you travelled the more the advantage was with the home team."

Ennis was particularly good to Clare last year. They were nine-point winners over Waterford in Cusack Park and had 11 points to spare over would-be All-Ireland champions Limerick.

They were results that, O'Connor believes, helped rebuild the relationship between this Clare hurling team and their supporters.

"If we are fair, we had only a very middling product as a Clare hurling team and management in 2017 to sell to the Clare public and it took a while for the players and the supporters to bond and gel.

"Halfway through that first half (against) Waterford last year, when Shane O'Donnell hit that shoulder on the Waterford full-back, that kind of lifted the crowd and there has been a very strong connection and bond between the Clare team and the public for the last year.

"We have essentially turned Cusack Park into a fortress now. That is a huge positive for us. We have lost very few games there and played very well.

"The supporters are very close to the pitch and they get right behind the team. There is an energy that comes down off the stands that the players feed off."

Clare face three matches in 14 days at the back end of the Munster championship with the visits of Tipperary and Cork sandwiched between a trip to Limerick to face the All-Ireland champions.

It's a hectic schedule and O'Connor agrees that keeping players fit is one of the main challenges facing managers.

"What we learned (from last year) was that we got really lucky with injuries. The concern, or the big challenge for us, is that we have got these three games in 14 days which we were lucky enough to avoid last year. It is nearly too much to ask. It would be the one concern that you have.

"If you look back Galway were the only team that won three in a row last year in the 14 days so that will definitely test the resilience and the endurance of the players on our panel.

"You need to have a really good run of luck and have players who are not getting injured.

"In 2017 we played Limerick in the Munster semi-final, one player tweaked a hamstring and one tweaked a groin. Six weeks later they were back for the Munster final.

"If you tweak a groin or a hamstring now you're gone for the Munster championship. That's the reality of it because there is no way you are going to get back inside four weeks."

Despite the challenges, O'Connor is a fan of the new system but would like a further tweak to the schedule.

"The new schedule is fantastic for the supporters and the players and the management because there is so much certainty about it.

"Again, I go back to that 2017 game against Limerick. We won but we weren't out again for six weeks. There was no chance to build momentum and whether you won or lost you weren't out for five or six weeks.

"So it is a far better system but it could be done with a break in the middle and play your two matches, break and then another two. That would be ideal."

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