Monday 26 February 2018

Dubs to channel their pain into keeping Daly on board

Clare might not be able to play this game on their terms, says Jamesie O'Connor

May 14, 2004. The Friday night before Anthony Daly's first championship game in charge of his native Clare and it's our last get-together before Sunday's first-round game with Waterford. Training has gone exceptionally well. The mood is positive, confidence within the camp is sky high and everyone looks fit, sharp and ready. Out for the previous three weeks with a hamstring injury that's finally starting to come right, I'm just an onlooker. But that night, I tell my wife that I can't see us being beaten.

Forty-eight hours later: Waterford 3-21, Clare 1-8. How wrong can you be?

Togged and telling myself the hamstring feels much better, I'm summoned from the bench ten minutes into the second half, with our chances, if not fully dead and buried, at best on life support. It's a last throw of the dice for Dalo, but five minutes later I'm hobbling off after aggravating the injury further, and a day that looked like it couldn't get any worse just did.

It was a truly terrible performance, possibly the worst as a team that side ever gave, and I can honestly say that no one in the Clare camp saw it coming. It seems a strange thing to say but, if anything, preparations had gone too well.

Instead of us going out and actually making it happen, there appeared to be an assumption that everything would pan out perfectly as seemed to have been the case all year. We had never lost to Waterford in the championship, clearly overestimated ourselves and how we were going, underestimated them badly and paid a severe price.

Shock was probably the overriding emotion in the dressing room afterwards. With a six-week gap to the qualifiers, it also meant we didn't reconvene until the following Friday. Obviously, we knew Dalo was hurting; we all were. But after five days of torturing himself with it, the extent of that hurt only became evident when he spoke to us before training started.

You could hear the pain in his voice as he tried to rationalise the performance. The lack of any genuine fight or aggression, the things that had probably characterised us as a team, was something he simply couldn't fathom. That it was a team prepared and selected by him that had gone out to represent the county and neglected to honour the jersey he wore with such pride for over a decade cut him to the bone.

As bad as we felt going into training that night, realising how badly we had let him down and how personally he was taking it, made it infinitely worse.

One of the things he said that night has stuck with me to this day: "You have to come to the fight ready to fight". It was patently obvious we had failed miserably to turn up ready for the fight.

At senior inter-county level, in a championship match, that's unforgivable.

At least with five weeks to the qualifiers from there, we had the opportunity to ensure that whatever baggage remained from the collapse in Thurles was well and truly purged from our systems before we resumed competitive action. We worked hard, beat Laois and Offaly and should have beaten Kilkenny in the quarter-final. A five point defeat in the replay ended our season but at least some measure of redemption had been secured.

May 23, 2012. Leinster championship semi-final in Portlaoise. Kilkenny 2-21, Dublin 0-9.

Anthony Daly has been here before. The Dublin hurlers have just given a performance every bit as pitiful and disjointed as their Clare counterparts eight years ago. The parallels are obvious and numerous; the hurt every bit as painful. However, it's an older, wiser and probably less forgiving Dalo than the young manager in his first year at the helm in Clare. But this time he doesn't have five weeks to recover and that makes Dublin dangerous opponents for Clare because the wounds will still be raw.

Like Daly, Davy Fitz will also have been hurting since the championship defeat to Waterford. He'll have been bitterly disappointed, not at the manner of the loss because, as he acknowledged afterwards, the players gave it everything they had on the day, but because it was a glorious opportunity missed to take a giant leap forward in this young Clare team's development.

Just to experience a Munster final, and all that goes with it, would have been a huge learning experience. Losing by two points having conceded two relatively soft goals, missing a couple of scoreable frees, and spurning a great goal chance with time almost up makes the defeat all the harder to stomach.

That the loss came at the hands of a Waterford side he's so familiar with is largely irrelevant. Take it from me, Davy Fitz doesn't like to lose, regardless of the opposition.

I sometimes think Davy takes things, and defeat in particular, too personally. Some of the criticism levelled at him in the wake of what happened in Thurles will undoubtedly be gnawing away at him. I remember reading a quote once from Mickey Harte's book that's relevant to anyone in management. "Don't mind criticism. If it's untrue, disregard it. If it's unfair, don't let it irritate you. If it's ignorant, smile. If it's justified, learn from it." Davy needs to figure out the bits that are justified, discard the rest and move on.

Clare have had a week longer to get their heads round the idea of facing the qualifiers, but that advantage will have been negated by the round of club matches played last weekend. Being at home is a help, but Cusack Park is no longer the fortress it once was and worryingly the team now hasn't won a championship match in four years. That brings its own pressures, but the players have the work done, and a place in the quarter-finals is not beyond them.

On paper, Dublin appear the better and more experienced team. But they are vulnerable.

They've failed to win a competitive match all year, and may have been lulled into believing the return of Hiney, Keaney and Tomás Brady was the remedy to all their ills. Whatever about players not manning up on the day, their use of possession and lack of any real invention up front was for me the most disappointing aspect of the defeat.

I'm sure the players have have endured plenty of soul-searching in the last seven days, but if Dublin are to progress, the forwards, and particularly their inside line, need to put it out there about the quality and speed of the ball that's coming in.

Two months ago, I left the drawn relegation play-off game with Galway in Tullamore feeling I'd have gone off my head if I played in the Dublin forward line such was the service they received. To date, there's been no discernible improvement, so as currently constituted to win games Dublin are going to have to overpower teams and monopolise possession to amass a match-winning tally.

With the emotion and hurt that I know Dublin will bring to Ennis, Clare have to be ready for the backlash that surely has to come. Because the Dubs are bigger and physically stronger, Clare need to play the game on their terms and not Dublin's. The faster the game is, the more it'll suit Clare, but I'd have genuine concerns about Clare's ability to win enough of the ball in the middle third of the field.

If Dublin lose, after four years in charge, Daly may decide it's time to walk away. After what he's given them, the Dublin players owe it to him to ensure that it's not his own county and former team-mate who put his managerial career in the capital to the sword.

If they play with their heads and not just their hearts, I fancy the Dubs to edge it and join Cork, Limerick and Wexford in the battle for the last two quarter-final slots.

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