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'The ref just gave up keeping the score at one stage, that's no word of a lie' - Clare's football progress

The strides made by the Clare footballers leave them in good stead before tomorrow’s Munster semi-final.

IF MARCH 2017 felt like a bolt from the blue, March 2018 felt like confirmation they were on the right track.

Clare huddle before the game The Clare footballers before their recent clash with Limerick. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Last year Clare savoured their first win over Cork in two decades between league and championship, clipping their wings by eight points in Ennis.

After trying for a long time to disrupt the old order of Munster football, it felt like a seismic moment for them.

Joe Hayes stood between the posts that day and had shuffled into retirement when they repeated the trick by two points on St Patrick’s night this year.

He’d spent enough years in goal suffering beatings against Cork to gauge the significance of a pair of league victories.

Joe Hayes makes a save Former Clare goalkeeper Joe Hayes. Source: Presseye/John McVitty/INPHO

“I was involved last year, that was huge for a lot of us, especially the older members that had continuously been on the end of a couple of drubbings from Cork down through the years.

“It was mostly championship because we were never really in the same league as them. We got some right good drubbings. A good few of us played a challenge game against them back around ’07 I think it was down in Páirc Uí Rinn.

“The ref just gave up keeping the score at one stage, that’s no word of a lie. We were a million miles off it. But gradually we felt as a group it was closing, on both to be honest with Cork and Kerry, but a bit faster on Cork.

“The win last year was just huge for us. It meant a lot but it even meant more this year because it proved last year wasn’t a fluke.”

Kieran Malone and Tomas Clancy Clare's Kieran Malone in action against Cork's Tomas Clancy. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

These are the flags Clare football have planted as part of their steady climb in the national ranks.

It’s season five of the Colm Collins era and tomorrow against Kerry they face into their fifth Munster semi-final in that time frame. They have yet to book a place on Munster senior final day under the guidance of Collins and still the progress they have made is undeniable.

In 2016, Clare featured twice in over three months in Croke Park, lifted silverware after thrilling Division 3 final victory over Kildare and squaring up against against Kerry in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

The Clare team celebrate winning Clare players celebrate their Division 3 league final victory. Source: Lorraine.O'Sullivan

Last year they were part of the last 16 in the Sam Maguire race and gave Mayo plenty to consider before bowing out in a qualifier.

They have adjusted to life in Division 2 of the league and gradually became comfortable at a higher altitude, finishing fifth last year and third last year. Since the start of 2017, Clare have beaten both Cork and Down twice while they challenged this year’s Division 2 finalists Cavan and Roscommon in their encounters.

Apart from a couple of pastings at the hands of Meath, they have begun to look at home which is quite a rise for a county who were more acquainted with the basement tier.

“When I started it was a different setup with Clare, the lowest in Division 4 for so long,” recalled Hayes.

“It was only baby steps starting off, there was no jumps. Colm came in, he got us up in the first year. He did a year to stay in Division 3 before he tackled it to get up again, then the last few years we’ve consolidated in Division 2.

“If one or more results had gone their way, you could have been pushing for that second spot to get promoted. Coming third in the league was a phenomenal achievement in my eyes.”

How have they managed that rate of improvement then?

Clare are not drawing from an underage pool teeming with successful teams. They will contest the Munster minor final later this month for the second successive year but last July’s appearance was their first in 23 years at that level. They haven’t lifted that particular crown since 1953.

At U21 level there are no Munster final victories to speak of and their last appearance in a decider in 2002 saw a seven-point loss to Kerry.

But the lack of silverware on the board has concealed some strides that have been made. In 2015 a Clare team with Pearse Lillis and Keelan Sexton in their ranks, let a winning position slip in a Munster minor semi-final. Tipperary would go on to play that September in Croke Park. A year later in the same grade, they posed a good test to a Kerry team that would push on to win the All-Ireland.

“Even though we weren’t getting the success underage, there was a lot of work being done in the background,” said Hayes.

“When Colm first came in, he got a centre of excellence going for U17 year olds. A lot of them are on the panel now.

“Now Tipp were doing the exact same and were reaping the rewards. That (minor) team in 2011, there’s nearly ten to eleven of them have come on to play senior football. The Clare team of that age, the work was still being done.”

Having the right man at the tiller has been key. Collins style of stewardship has been progressive and he has been rewarded for his careful husbandry of the resources at Clare’s disposal. Retaining his services was essential to their plans for 2018.

Colm Collins Clare football boss Colm Collins. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It is hugely important,” said captain Gary Brennan.

“Colm has put a great structure in place. Guys have bought into it, he knows the county and he knows the players well.

“Colm, I don’t know whether he is planning on being an Arsene Wenger or a Brian Cody about it, but as long as he wants it at the moment he is more than welcome to have that job.

“It is important that we are looking to put the structures in place behind what Colm is doing at the moment because whenever he does decide (to go), hopefully it is not too soon when he wants to move on, but we have something ready to go to push it on.”

Collins has exposed Clare to a different array of coaching voices, so they could absorb information. Cork All-Ireland winner Paudie Kissane did a season with them. They’ve worked with the last two All-Ireland senior ladies football supremos, Cork’s Ephie Fitzgerald and Dublin’s Mick Bohan.

In 2013, Alan Flynn took a Galway U21 team to an All-Ireland title and has watched the likes of Damien Comer, Shane Walsh and Ian Burke use it as a springboard to senior.

Alan Flynn Galway All-Ireland U21 winning manager Alan Flynn. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Since the outset of 2017, Flynn has been tutoring Clare and helping out at club level with Annaghdown, who provided All-Ireland kingpins Corofin with a rigorous examination in Galway last autumn.

“Alan is still involved, he is with Clare as well,” says Galway defender and Annaghdown club man Eoghan Kerin.

“I had Alan at U21 for a couple of years, so I would know him pretty well. He is a guy that is really meticulous in his preparation. He leaves nothing to chance really.

“He is great and a couple of years ago we were in a relegation battle with Annaghdown, but he has brought everyone together.”

Working in the right environment also helps. The gates were opened in Caherlohan a couple of years ago for the hub Clare GAA hopes will help their teams prosper.

“Listen if you’d seen some of the places we used to train in back pre the development in Caherlohan, you would have laughed,” said Hayes.

“That’s no word of a lie. It definitely has helped. There’s always a good mood around that place because you’ve the hurlers and the footballers down there.

“The winter pitches under the lights have probably taken a bit of a battering but the summer pitches are in absolute mint condition, lads love training on there, they’re like carpets.

“It just brings everything to another level for players and they enjoy being there.”

Joe Hayes celebrates after his side scored their third goal Joe Hayes served the Banner for several seasons. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Outside their camp, there is a greater awareness of Clare’s capacity to perform. Bryan Sheehan hung up his boots with Kerry last November. Starting out on his inter-county journey, ties with Clare could be approached differently.

“Going back to the early days when we were involved in the early noughties, you could kind of gauge your structure for fitness, that you’d always up the ante coming up to Cork in the Munster final and All-Ireland quarter-finals,” said Sheehan.

“But the way the game is gone, every team is as fit as each other. You see the improvements Clare have made in the last few years. Going back from years ago, we knew we were probably going to beat Clare and you just had to see it out.

“But in this day and age, we’d be preparing, doing the video work as you would for any other game. You can’t be taking your eye off the ball.”

Clare’s talisman has caught the eye more than most. Gary Brennan’s rampaging midfield play made him a flag-bearer in the county and lining out for Ireland in a hybrid game offered a platform for the Clondegad man to illustrate that to everyone else in the country.

“I think Gary Brennan is one of the most top rated footballers in the country at the moment,” said Sheehan.

Gary Brennan and Bryan Sheehan Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Even I just had a quick chat with some of the boys and they were saying in the Compromise Rules, they couldn’t get over how good of a footballer he was.

“Bernard (Brogan) was saying (in Croke Park this week) he couldn’t get over how much of an athlete he was and how good of a footballer he was. (He) probably wouldn’t have seen or come across him with Dublin.

“Whoever gets the job of keeping an eye on him will have his work cut out. Big, strong, athletic, very good carrying the ball, can kick scores, good in the air, he’s a handful.

“But it’s not just him, I think Clare they’ve improved all over the field. Even last year above in Ennis, it probably wasn’t until the last 15 minutes that we pulled away.”

They still face a daunting task tomorrow with a trip to Killarney. Clare gave Kerry their fill of it in Ennis in 2014 and 2017 but the gap was wider against Cork in 2015 and the Kingdom in 2016.

It will be a major leap to take a scalp in a Munster semi-final and reach only their fourth decider since that epochal win over Kerry in 1992. But Clare have fused different elements together to leave their minds positive.

They met Limerick for the fourth year straight in Munster a couple of weeks ago. Each of Clare’s previous victories had been achieved by a single score margin.

Posting 1-21 from play this time at heart of an 11-point victory felt like a statement from Clare that they have no inclination to regress to the status of a pushover.

“I put it down a lot to the players themselves buying into the senior setup,” remarked Hayes.

“It’s no secret that inter-county football and hurling now, it’s a lifestyle that you’ve to be fully committed to the game. I think a lot of it just goes to that.

“It has been gradual progress over the last four or five years. It’s been great to see. You’d be delighted for people that have put so much into football in the county.”

Clare seek to keep improving and stay on the right road.

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Fintan O'Toole

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