Tuesday 23 July 2019

Key to upset lies in defence for attack-heavy Banner

Conor Cleary faces Joe Canning on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Cleary faces Joe Canning on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In the 1990s the challenge tended to steepen for the Clare hurlers once they crossed into the opposition half. They weren't blessed with a surfeit of outstanding forwards and Jamesie O'Connor often divided his time between midfield and the attack, needed, if it were possible, in both places at the same time. The Clare attack had a naturally lethal finisher in Ger O'Loughlin, but they were workmanlike on the whole. It was a sleeves-up, perspiration mission most days.

Sure enough, in the All-Ireland final of 1995 against Offaly, who were not short of precociously skilled forwards, Clare dominated general play but made exceedingly heavy work of winning. To compound matters, O'Connor had an off day, and yet somehow they managed to win the match. They hit around 15 wides and conceded two soft goals to an exceptional team, the first a Davy Fitzgerald handling blunder just before half-time, and yet they still managed to win.

That victory took monumental will and two unlikely factors to compensate for the shortcomings elsewhere. Fergie Tuohy joined the cast of unheralded All-Ireland match-winners with a four-point haul from play, having one of those dreamlike days, while Eamon Taaffe came on to score the winning goal before being substituted soon afterwards. It wasn't a complete team by any means and most of their marquee players were in the backline. Today it is very much the opposite.

If they come up short, which is expected without being a foregone conclusion, in next Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, it may well be their defence upon which they founder. In the 1990s they had a half-back line that was the envy of most counties, with Liam Doyle, Sean McMahon and Anthony Daly, and behind them there was the imperturbable Brian Lohan. They don't have anything like the same calibre of player in those positions now.

It is arguable that maybe only two of the current Clare backline would have made the defence that helped propel the county to All-Ireland wins in 1995 and '97. And if you were to stick strictly to position, then it might only be one. The majority of Clare's most gifted players are now found in more attacking roles. This has been a positive development.

While the philosophy may be determined by the players at your disposal, Clare have produced a more attacking player at the premium end over the last 10 years. They won an All-Ireland in 2013 going toe-to-toe with Cork over two days; the difference in method between the All-Ireland won then and the one achieved in '95 could not have been more pronounced.

They return to Croke Park for the first time since 2013 with some of those attacking players still in place, and a few new ones. But there is a defensive job facing them as well, and against Galway's feted attack, brimming with confidence, Clare have it all to do to keep them subdued. Conor Cleary faces Joe Canning, which is the biggest moment of his inter-county career, after playing in the last two Munster finals. He isn't pretending to be Seanie McMahon, who was an acclaimed player and all-time great, but how he manages to fulfil his role could have a major bearing on Clare's prospects of causing an upset.

Five years ago Clare operated a sweeper system that had Canning bottled up in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and the only requirement on his direct marker was to stop him gaining clean possession. Cleary was pinpointed for criticism after the Munster final defeat to Cork, but Anthony Daly says that some of this was unfair. "I was delighted for Conor the last day [against Wexford]. He took a lot of stick after the Munster final along with a couple of others. I have seen him hurling from under 16 up with Kilmaley, seen him hurling Fitzgibbon Cup, and he's well able to play.

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"I thought he stuck with his man the last day, that is the right thing to do. I feel he should do the same with Canning. You have a player going with him and then another to fill in the hole."

Daly has also been impressed with the improvement and consistency shown by Jack Browne at corner-back, a player who previously had some disciplinary issues. Clare have an obvious foil for Jonathan Glynn in David McInerney, who has the stature and plenty of hurling, and while David Fitzgerald is making a strong claim to be recalled, the likelihood is that Clare will stay unchanged. If they stayed faithful to the defence after the Munster final defeat by Cork, it seems highly likely they will do so now having defeated Wexford.

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