Sunday 21 January 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Clare need to clear the air with a county divided

It's been a topsy-turvy week for Clare and the county's fans

There is plenty of support for Davy Fitzgerald, seen here reacting to defeat last weekend, but there are just as many who believe a shake-up is needed in Clare’s hurling set-up
There is plenty of support for Davy Fitzgerald, seen here reacting to defeat last weekend, but there are just as many who believe a shake-up is needed in Clare’s hurling set-up

Jamesie O'Connor

They say a week is a long time in politics - and it's been a strange seven days in Clare hurling too, as the fallout from last Saturday night's bitterly disappointing championship exit begins to take hold.

Before looking at the events that took place during the week, it's worth providing a context - particularly for those outside of Clare who may have no idea of the strength of feeling, or the level of division that exists within the county, towards the current management. A brief walk through Clare's year may be the best way to illustrate why such a mood prevails, and where this is likely to end.

It's stating the obvious that the defence of the 2013 All-Ireland title wasn't what it should have been last year. Players and management alike would acknowledge that. But in a county like Clare - largely unaccustomed to success at senior level - it's understandable and forgiveable that the team, for a myriad reasons, never reached the heights they attained the previous summer.

Nevertheless, expectations were high that 2015 would see Clare involved at the business end of the championship, and rightly so. A third successive All-Ireland under-21 title was annexed last September; most of the panel could draw from the experience and confidence of having won a senior title already, and more pertinently, Clare are one of the few counties with players in attack with the required 'x-factor' to really trouble opposition defences.

Read more: Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald gets board's backing to see out full term

While they mightn't say it publicly, I'd imagine both Brian Cody and Eamon O'Shea are secretly pleased that Clare have exited stage left. Not because they fear Clare in their current guise, or worry about beating them. For the record, I believe both would have handled Clare had their paths crossed. But because Clare in Croke Park would have been dangerous opponents, (arguably more dangerous than any of the remaining sides, outside of the big two), especially with their mojo back, and the momentum that a run through the qualifiers would have given them.

Clare hurling boss Davy Fitzgerald (right) watches on as referee Colm Lyons (far left) leaves the field for the half-time break alongside Patrick Donnellan, whom he had just sent off, during yesterday’s Munster SHC clash SPORTSFILE
Clare hurling boss Davy Fitzgerald (right) watches on as referee Colm Lyons (far left) leaves the field for the half-time break alongside Patrick Donnellan, whom he had just sent off, during yesterday’s Munster SHC clash SPORTSFILE

Clearly though, things didn't go to plan for Davy Fitzgerald. A below par league campaign - defeats to Cork, Tipp and Galway, and a solitary home win over Dublin - was almost rescued with two highly credible performances against Kilkenny, especially in the relegation play-off. But nonetheless, one victory from six matches and demotion to the second tier came as both a shock and disappointment given the ambitions of all involved and was scant reward for how hard everyone had worked.

In the midst of it all, headlines were again being made off the field for all the wrong reasons. It was regrettable that the disciplinary actions taken against Nicky O'Connell and Davy O'Halloran made it into the public domain in the first place. But once they did, it was a situation that needed to be managed more delicately than proved to be the case. Even after the initial furore, once the management had given their response to it, I felt the story would die a natural death. That should have been the end of it.

But the decision - whoever made it - to have the players release a subsequent statement endorsing the stance taken dragged the controversy on for at least another couple of days.

Read more: 'Davy Fitzgerald deserves more time with Clare – but only if he has the backing of his players'

The media had moved on to the next story until oxygen was added to what was a dying flame. Furthermore, it portrayed the players in a less than favourable light, given the treatment apparently meted out to the duo involved. Opinions would have differed within the group on the rights and wrongs of what was done. But to have to sign off on something they couldn't have all been comfortable with - especially for the clubmates of, and players close to, those involved - can't have helped the spirit within the squad.

If the Munster championship defeat to Limerick was a massive setback, it was overshadowed by Davy's bizarre post-match interview with RTE's Claire McNamara. That was the primary topic of discussion, rather than the match itself, in workplaces up and down the county on the Monday morning after the game.

Davy Fitz seems entitled to wonder about the ringing in his ears
Davy Fitz seems entitled to wonder about the ringing in his ears

Having been in Thurles, I hadn't even seen it. The indiscipline on the field which crippled our chances also got an airing, as did the television images of Tony Kelly berating one of the match officials in the tunnel after the game. That was a sight Clare supporters don't expect or want to see, because it's so out of character for Tony. That's not him, and no good was ever going to come from it.

We couldn't have any complaints about the straight red shown to Pat Donnellan - again, an offence completely out of character. But to concede the number of frees we did (11 points of Limerick's 1-19 came from placed balls) and finish a third consecutive championship match at least a man down - for a team that played with such control, panache and style in 2013 - had supporters questioning where it has all gone wrong.

Whatever hopes that the team could tread the same path through the qualifiers as they did in 2013 perished in Thurles last Saturday night. Four consecutive scores to go 17-15 up with 11 minutes remaining appeared to have put Clare in the driving seat. But they failed to score again, and Cork closed out the match with five unanswered points to bury Clare's hopes and exact further retribution for the devastation the Banner visited on them in that 2013 All-Ireland final.

So, where do Clare go from here? On Tuesday, the County Board moved to quell any speculation about Davy's future by announcing that he would continue for the next two years. On Wednesday, a pre-recorded interview with two of the Clare players, Brendan Bugler and Aaron Cunningham, reiterating the players' support for their manager, was aired on Clare FM. In both cases, the PR company whose services the County Board have engaged played a central role.

For those with just a passing interest in matters GAA, the impression that everything is rosy in the garden, and that the clubs and players are all on board, may prevail. But there's another constituency, that of the supporters who travel to the league and championship matches, who aren't necessarily buying the spin being put on things.

True, there's plenty of support for Davy. But there's also a sizeable cohort asking serious questions about why the team has underperformed again this year.

Clare Manager Davy Fitzgerald
Clare Manager Davy Fitzgerald

It appears the County Board have grossly underestimated just how big that cohort is, and the level of opprobrium and discontent that exists among them. That's why I ventured the opinion on Clare FM on Friday evening that the optics of what occurred last week just don't look good. It all appears too controlled, too managed. It's as if a textbook 'crisis management' PR approach is being adopted. No debate, no discussion - and that doesn't sit well with many of the people I have spoken with, in tune with the mood around the county.

Before people start jumping to conclusions, this is not about plunging the knife into the back of someone I shared a dressing room with for most of my teenage and adult playing career. That's not my style. I'd prefer to be writing about anything other than Clare this weekend, but that's the brief I was given. All I can do is offer the same fair and balanced opinion as I would in any other week.

I've also heard people from other counties express astonishment that people in Clare are calling for Davy's sacking, given we were All-Ireland champions just two years ago. There is plenty of merit in the argument that he has earned the right to another year at the helm.

In addition, while we won three consecutive under-21 titles, those victories were backboned by some incredibly talented individuals, all of whom have gravitated to the senior team, and an exceptional management that got the absolute best out of the players available.

Read more: Clare dumped out of championship by spirited last quarter performance by Cork

It's a huge step up to senior level. Not every successful underage player is capable of making that progression. Therefore, the abundance of talent perceived to be there may not yield as bountiful a harvest as the consensus might suggest. On that basis, maybe our expectations in Clare need to be tempered accordingly.

Nonetheless, Davy knows that, as manager, the buck stops with him. He also knows that failing to win a match in Munster, and failing to make the quarter-finals in each of the last two years, isn't good enough. If we overachieved in 2013, the team has underachieved since.

Turning things around and getting the hurling public back onside will be a challenge. Mistakes have been made and we have to learn from them. The controversies that have dogged the team, the constant trouble with referees - the latest of which, with Barry Kelly last weekend, was bizarre to say the least - are all things that sap the morale and energy of the team.

I remember being drained in 1998 by all the drama that was happening off the field. That stuff has to be eliminated. The olive branch, also, needs to be extended to Podge Collins. The exuberance and energy he brings, coupled with his ability to stitch the play together, has been sorely missed. So, too, has Paul Kinnerk from the backroom team, particularly given the esteem in which he is held - especially by the younger players.

I don't think the county board have helped Davy with the strategy they adopted last week. But when the dust settles, I'd be shocked if he isn't at the helm in 2016. Moving heaven and earth to get those two guys back on board would be a first and significant step forward in what's likely to be a massive year in the life of this Clare team and their manager.

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