Jamesie O'Connor: Banner have one last kick in them - but only if they use the ball better
For the majority of Clare people walking out of Thurles last Sunday, and there weren't too many - which is an indictment of the support the team had, outnumbered almost ten to one - there was a palpable sense of frustration at how the game had gone.
My thoughts in the immediate aftermath were that we could have no complaints. Cork were positive from the outset, the better side on the day, and absolutely deserved to win the game. But there was a lingering disappointment because Clare had hit the woodwork twice, missed a penalty, shot some crazy wides, particularly in the second half, and failed to get any decent ball into Shane O'Donnell and Conor McGrath in their inside forward line. Yet despite all that, with 69 minutes on the clock, they were still only two points down, after playing, at least to the naked eye, poorly for most of the game.
Last Tuesday, before I had a chance to sit down and watch the match in its entirety again, I read a line somewhere which referenced the five-point hammering Clare were on the receiving end of. Hands up, Clare didn't play remotely close to well enough to win the match. But a hammering? Irrespective of my loyalties, that didn't tally with my take on how the day had gone. As a result, a good chunk of Thursday was devoted to dissecting the game, and evaluating whether or not the read I had from watching it live at the ground stacked up with what actually happened. From a Clare perspective, it didn't improve my mood, and should make for mandatory viewing for the players, because there's a lot to be learned from it.
In a brief television interview before the throw-in, the former Cork manager Donal O'Grady was asked to give his verdict, and summed things up concisely by stating that "whatever inside forward line gets the good quality ball, I think that will make the difference".
It's an important point. Everyone seems to rate Clare's inside forwards, McGrath and O'Donnell in particular. Everyone that is, it would appear, except their team-mates and the Clare management, because the quantity and quality of ball they got on Sunday bears no comparison to the service given to Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Alan Cadogan in Cork and in particular to Seamus Callanan, 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer and John McGrath in Tipperary, who Clare will have to stop when they face them in the quarter-final in six days' time.
That full-forward line accounted for 5-17 of Tipp's final tally in the win over Dublin on Saturday evening; 5-10 of it came from play and, worryingly for Clare, that trio looked to have really rediscovered their mojo. Their movement, touch and skill were excellent, but so too was the service they got from their colleagues out the field. Tipp recognise the quality and class those players possess, and their game-plan is centred on looking to feed them at every opportunity. They know that the more often they get the ball into the hands of the shooters and finishers they have in their inside line, the more likely good things are to happen for the team. Cork do too. Clare apparently don't, because some of the decision-making on the ball, and undisciplined shooting from players out the field last Sunday, wasn't good enough. They need to be called out on it, because it's hurting the team. Without a single score from play in the opening half, the full-forward line only contributed 1-3 over the 70 minutes, primarily due to the lack of service they got from out the field.
There's a saying in Kilkenny that the only bad ball is the one that doesn't come in. I thought O'Donnell and McGrath were starved of quality ball last Sunday, so I went through the video to verify it. In the first half, I counted 14 balls going into the Clare full-forward line. That stat is misleading ,though, because I struggled to find a single instance where O'Donnell, McGrath or Aaron Shanagher got the type of ideal ball in front of them that for example Cadogan got for Cork's goal.
In the same half, Cork hit their inside line 16 times. But the quality of the ball going in was, for the most part, more considered, so it's no surprise the yield was higher. In the second half, Cork got almost twice as much ball into their inside forwards as Clare managed. I had the count at 28 to 16.
In a game where Clare had every bit as much primary possession as Cork, but were hitting a lot less of it into their inside forwards, they needed to be accurate and disciplined in their shot selection from out the field. They weren't. Cork missed just four chances in the opening half. Clare in comparison dropped two balls short into Anthony Nash's hand, and had seven wides. That's nine chances that went a begging, and in almost all of those nine instances, there were other, arguably better, options available that weren't taken.
However, if the first-half misses were costly, they pale into insignificance with Clare's profligacy in the 15 minutes after half-time. Clare blew eight scoring chances in that period, when they were in the ascendency. David Fitzgerald and Colm Galvin twice dropped long-range efforts short into Nash's hand, and there were five wides, four of which were low-percentage efforts from the sideline or midfield and beyond. In that same period, Cork had just two wides.
Admittedly, Cork missed three good chances to extend their lead further in the last ten minutes, but they were all shots that the Cork management would have had no issue with being taken on. That to me is where Clare faltered. You're not going to score everything, but you can't afford to leave 18 scoring opportunities behind and expect to win. And that's not including the penalty miss, or two good goal chances that O'Donnell created for Cathal Malone which struck the woodwork.
In relation to Clare's tactics, maybe they're guilty of focusing on stopping Cork, and over-analysing it, rather than playing to their own strengths. They had to have a plan for Nash's puck-outs given how good his distribution is, and in terms of negating Conor Lehane's impact on the game, the strategy worked.
If you told me before the game that Nash was going to puck out the ball short to his full-backs 20 times in the match I'd have probably taken it. What I didn't envisage happening was that those full-backs, and Damien Cahalane in particular, would be allowed to carry the ball another 20 metres, out to their own 45-metre line, before launching it into the Clare full-back line, time after time, especially in the second half. That was where the in-game adjustments needed to be made, and while it's easy to blame the management, where was the communication between the players to address it on the field?
In relation to the pre-match 'sliotar-gate' incident, anyone that knows Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor would vouch that they had nothing to do with it, and that it's not their style. It was a ridiculous thing to do, and embarrassing from a Clare perspective. It was bad enough to lose the match. It was worse still for the management having to apologise for something they shouldn't have had to apologise for in the first place, because it simply shouldn't have happened.
What I learned from Sunday is that Clare aren't as far away as most observers seem to think. Tipp have improved, especially with 'Bonner' Maher back at centre-forward, and we all know what they're capable of in attack. But they're not unbeatable, as Cork showed, and their full-back line especially looks vulnerable.
I wouldn't rule Clare out completely. Podge Collins wasn't fully fit last Sunday, and the gamble on starting Oisín O'Brien backfired. Both of those should be closer to full fitness by next Saturday. Furthermore, the Clare players should be burning to atone for last weekend. Tipp will go in as favourites, but if Clare can rectify some of the shortcomings in how they're using the ball, I have a suspicion we mightn't have seen the last of them just yet.
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