Clinical Cork to punish any cracks in Davy's rigid Banner system
WHEN Davy Fitzgerald took over as Clare manager in autumn 2011, he priced Banner shares relatively low.
"We're probably at No 10. You have the All-Ireland semi-finalists (Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Dublin), the quarter-finalists (Limerick, Galway) and then there's Cork, Offaly and Wexford. We're next. That's where I'm starting from," he said.
The stats backed up his assessment. Nine counties were ahead of Clare in the 2011 league and they lost to Tipperary and Galway in the championship by a combined total of 26 points. Davy was appointed on an initial three-year term, a period in which he targeted for a steep incline in fortunes.
"If we get back to the top four or five, it means we're competing and have a chance to win something," he said.
Eighteen months on, Clare are an impressive project. Based on the recent league campaign, they have forced their way into the top six and a win over Cork tomorrow would guarantee the same (with the chance of more to come) in the championship.
One suspects that Fitzgerald's ambition finder has been privately reprogrammed and now points much higher than the top six. He can sense a first Munster title success since 1998 and, after that, who knows?
There's a strong momentum behind Clare, some of which has been built off two league wins over Cork, which kept them in Division 1A.
The squad is super-fit and Fitzgerald (right) has them playing to a system where the individual fits into the pattern rather than the other way around. When it works, it's very effective, but the format is so rigid, that when it breaks down, it offers the opposition opportunities.
It happened early in the clash with Waterford last month when defender Pat Donnellan, standing just outside the 13-metre line directly in front of goal, attempted to deliver a short, ground pass which was intercepted and converted into a Waterford goal.
Donnellan was trying to guarantee that possession was retained rather than belt the ball 90 metres downfield and into a 50-50 situation.
Still, the opposition don't score goals from their own half of the field so it would have been the more secure option.
Clare recovered well and once they got their system working at near-peak efficiency in the second half, they outscored Waterford by 2-7 to 0-4 in the final quarter to win by eight points.
And yet, it might have been all very different if Waterford had been more accurate in the first 40 minutes, during which they hit 13 wides, but still led by four points.
Clare would argue – but only with partial justification – that Waterford's big wides tally was due to the pressure applied on the forwards.
Cork's score-to-chance ratio will be higher than Waterford's if the flow goes their way.
However, the big challenge facing them is to win enough possession in the middle third to create the scoring opportunities.
That task is made all the more difficult by the absence of so many players who, if available, would have been first choices.
Eoin Cadogan, Damien Cahalane, Paudie O'Sullivan, Patrick Cronin, Darren Sweetnam and Lorcan McLoughlin would all have been aboard were it not for injury and the lure of Gaelic football and rugby.
At a time when Cork's resources are not especially plentiful, that is a serious loss of talent as they prepare for battle against such an energetic and driven Clare outfit.
Still, it has to be recalled that Cork reached the All-Ireland semi-final last year and were unlucky to find themselves in the relegation zone this year.
There may be a lot more to them than many think.
Cork – A Nash; S McDonnell, B Murphy, C O'Sullivan; S O'Neill, C Joyce, W Egan; T Kenny, D Kearney; C McCarthy, S Harnedy, C Lehane; P Horgan, L O'Farrell, S Moylan.