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'He's an absolute master of the craft' - Why Clare's long-serving boss shows no signs of stopping

A masterful coach, Colm Collins has instilled belief and high standards in Clare’s footballers for years. This evening his eighth championship with the Banner throws in.

IN 2018, CONOR Ryan was finally forced to pull the plug on his playing days.

A pituitary gland issue meant he could no longer mount a return to funnel all his energy into the Clare hurling cause.

The abrupt halting of a promising career attracted attention, given it was only five years since he was an All-Ireland and All-Star winning midfielder.

Yet for all the profile afforded to him by his senior hurling exploits, the first people he reached out to were those who had guided him from the start in Cratloe.

“When I had to retire, the first two calls I made were to Joe McGrath and Colm Collins. They were hugely supportive. They knew the whole craic with me, the couple of years I was trying to get back. 

“When we won the double in 2014 in Clare, no way would that have happened if Colm and Joe didn’t understand each other. It wasn’t us against them. It was a club effort and they drove it on.

“They were driven but they’ve huge integrity, the two men.”

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Joe is a native of Toomevara in North Tipperary, who helped to develop Ryan to reach the pinnacle of hurling.

Colm is from Kilmihil in West Clare, the manager who this evening takes the Clare senior footballers to Killarney, where the first shots will be fired in his eighth championship season. It’s an unbroken run of service, no other current manager in the country has been at the helm of their team for longer.

Conor Ryan never featured for him at senior county level but looked to him for guidance through the entirety of his Cratloe football career.

That forged a bond that hasn’t been loosened by Ryan now living across the Atlantic, recently moving from Boston to start a new job in New York, the base from where he will be tuning in to tonight’s game.

“I remember the first big final we got to was U12 B football, I was nine at the time, it was around 2000. Colm made a huge deal about it. He got us new gear, togs and socks for the final. We thought this was the best thing ever.

“He would have been the first coach I kicked a ball for and the last coach I kicked a ball for.

“The one thing that separates Colm is he’s an absolute master of the craft. When he finally got the Clare senior job, it was a no-brainer.”

That appointment of Collins was rubber-stamped in October 2013, as he took over from Mick O’Dwyer. His reign properly began on 2 February 2014, a seven-point win against Waterford in Dungarvan in Division 4 of the league.

Saturday will be his 74th match in charge of Clare across senior league and championship. He got them out of the bottom section of the league in his first year, gained Division 3 promotion in 2016 and has had them operating in the second tier ever since.

In the summer he has steered Clare to the last 16 on three occasions, the last 12 once and they broke into the top eight with a quarter-final appearance in 2016.

They have played 17 different counties across 28 championship outings in the Collins’ era and a further 11 in league games. The only outfits he hasn’t crossed paths with competitively are Dublin, Tyrone and Monaghan.

It’s a remarkable feat of longevity and consistency and progression, all dedicated to improved Clare football.

Last Sunday week they took on the 2020 All-Ireland finalists Mayo with the prize of Division 1 football on offer. Now they meet Kerry, the second favourites to lift Sam Maguire, as the Munster schedule begins.

The Clare manager shows no sign of slowing down.

*****

David O’Brien’s official two-year spin as a selector alongside Collins, ended at the end of the 2017 season.

That doesn’t mean his involvement with the Clare footballers has been severed.

“He’s a great ability to get you to do stuff. I’m gone since 2017 and every year since I organise the gear for the team.

“Colm just rings you and goes, ‘You’ll do me a favour.’

“‘You’ll sort out the sizes for the gear and help deal with Pat and O’Neills.’

“No one ever says no to him, because if you need him to do something, he will never say no to you. That’s the biggest trait he has.

“He’ll do anything for everyone involved with the setup, whether it’s the person cutting the grass on the pitch or the captain of the team, it doesn’t matter.

“If you’re doing something that’s going to benefit Clare football, he’ll do anything for you.”

colm-collins-spikes-to-the-media-after-the-game Collins chats to the media after a recent game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

O’Brien and Collins had crossed paths for several years in the Clare football arena. Club battles between Miltown Malbay and Cratloe. Preparing county underage teams together.

Then O’Brien got recruited to the senior setup, the timing an illustration of the manager’s insatiable appetite for work to further the Clare football brand.

“It was just around when they played Longford in ’15, (losing that qualifier), and he was planning for ’16 already.

“I was working and he rang me and said, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’

“He came in then and said, ‘We’re going to drive it on again next year, would you be interested in getting involved?’

“He just loves it and is obsessed with Clare football. It means everything to him.

“This is nearly his third team with Clare, he rebuilds and he does it again.

“His thinking is that if you can get a group of players in Clare to believe in what they’re doing and just commit to it, it can go anywhere.

“I think as long as he sees that happening, he’ll stay.”

*****

The make-up of the Clare team has kept evolving during Collins’ stewardship. He casts the net far and wide, drawing players in from every corner of the county. When they took on Mayo in that recent promotion play-off, 15 different clubs supplied the 22 players Clare used during the game.

Last November, Emmet McMahon was introduced as a substitute against Tipperary and became the 60th Clare player to line out in senior championship under Collins.

Daniel Walsh and Darren O’Neill are set to increase that number after being named to start against Kerry.

“You could go to a Junior B match, back as far west from him as possible on a Tuesday evening and you’d look up to the bank and he’ll be there,” says O’Brien.

“The players don’t even actually have to be standing out for their club, it could just be someone that he likes their attitude. He’d look at it that they mightn’t make it next year or the year after but in three years’ time, this fella could be making the team.

“That team which are playing at the minute, four or five of those were brought in at the end of ’17. They mightn’t have even been starting for their club teams but he just liked the look of them, had heard good things about them at underage and just said we’re going to invest time in these boys and see how it works.”

Two other clubs contributed to the Clare team for that game, Ballyhaunis in Mayo through Eoghan Collins, a nephew of the manager, and Austin Stacks in Clare through Conor Jordan.

Collins has been imaginative in drawing in players from the outside who have local ties to the west coast through their family backgrounds.

“He doesn’t just go and look for anyone that’s available to come for Clare. Shane McGrath would spend a lot of time in Clare, his father would probably have played football with Colm. Pat Burke, both his parents are from West Clare, his father would be down to local games all the time. They’d be really steeped in Clare. They bought into it straight away.

“I don’t know Conor Jordan to be honest but I know his father played a lot with Kilkee. There’d have been a history of Clare football from the parents before these players are just brought in.”

*****

All the while, Collins has continued to nurture Cratloe football, helping to ensure it remains in a healthy state.

They won a county intermediate title in 2009, made the senior breakthrough in 2013 – he replicated what he had achieved as a player with Kilmihil back in 1980 – and retained that crown a year later. Further Clare final appearances followed in 2016 and 2020.

Cratloe came desperately close to achieving something greater in 2013, pipped by a late point from Johnny Buckley as a star-studded Dr Crokes team just held on for Munster glory.

colm-collins-celebrates-with-his-team-after-the-game Conor Ryan (left) celebrating Cratloe's 2014 county championship victory. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Powering the rise was Ryan and his contemporaries, a collection of talents who all got the county call in time. Sean Collins was born in 1989, Liam Markham in 1990, Ryan, Conor McGrath and Cathal McInerney came along in 1991, then Podge Collins in 1992.

They were a talented crew, who all grew up together.

“The Collins’ house was nearly the hive of the parish,” says Ryan.

“We all used to go there, the three lads, Podge, David and Sean were close in age.  You wouldn’t dream of going up to their house without a hurley, you’d have been sent back down to get it.

“We were very lucky in Cratloe growing up with that core of lads. You’d the Gleesons as well, we were all good friends.

“The three Collins went to St Aidan’s, which is a primary school in Shannon, because their Mam taught there. Ger Loughnane was principal there and I remember, we in Cratloe played them in a Division 2 schools final. I was in 6th class, Podge was in 5th.

“It was the dirtiest schools match you would ever come across. Ger had the boys absolutely psyched, playing against all their friends in Cratloe. We were all competitive.

“It was special for us in the club, playing with each other and having coaches like Colm, who weren’t from the outside and were coaching their sons and their friends.

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“With Colm we won at every grade in football up along from U16. Martin Murphy and Sean O’Dea were with him the whole way up, but it wouldn’t have happened without Colm. I don’t think anyone would argue that fact.

“It’s complete and utter passion. Colm loves football. We used to have triple-headers in Cusack Park, the days of championship. Colm would be going to coach Cratloe but then he’d be going to do his homework as well for the following two games. It’s what he enjoyed and loved doing.”

*****

The 2021 draw has pitted Clare with familiar foes, a seventh clash with Kerry during the reign of Collins. They have lost them all, generally taking Kerry to the wire at home in Ennis but struggling to replicate that form in Killarney.

colm-collins-with-james-odonoghue Respect: Colm Collins with Kerry's James O'Donoghue. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“They’ve been unlucky with the draw they’ve got but they will try to impose their game on Kerry,” says O’Brien.

“They’ll know a lot of things will have to go right and a lot of things will have to go wrong for Kerry and that’s the way it’ll always be with Clare and Kerry.

“But they will go after way they can do and Colm will give the players the freedom to play the same way they did against Mayo and Cork.

“They’ll go down playing their way and that’s something Colm has allowed them to do.”

And it is all part of the wider hope to gain recognition and acceptance amongst the football elite, like that day when took down Roscommon in 2016 to bag a last-eight spot in Croke Park.

“That Roscommon game, that was unbelievable. Everybody was grabbing each other and hugging after. We played so well, it wasn’t a smash-and-grab.

“It was just an emotional thing, Clare had arrived at a level they hadn’t been in a long time. You were in the quarter-final, going to Croke Park. You were doing what Dublin and Kerry do every year.

“You’d hear the phrase ‘teams like Clare’ on The Sunday Game and these places, I know that used to drive him mad.

“It was like saying they weren’t the same as everyone else. He used to always say that Clare, there’s no reason why they can’t be in the top 12 in the country. That was a goal he set in the one of the very first training sessions.”

podge-collins-celebrates-with-his-father-colm-and-his-mother-katherine Colm, Podge and Katherine Collins celebrating Clare's win over Roscommon in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Despite the difficulties of knockout draws or onerous tasks facing big-time opponents, O’Brien has watched Collins drive the Clare squad on, creating an environment where players from an array of backgrounds are motivated.

“There was one player in 2016 who’d stopped playing football with his club and was talking about going away for the summer. He was a young enough player and Colm knew that this fella could make it in two or three years’ time.

“There was a danger he was going to pack in football. So Colm brought him into the Clare panel for the three or four weeks before he went away, just to keep him playing football. It was more or less to show him, if you settle and you come back playing football, this is here for you.

“The young lad took off but has gone on to play inter-county for Clare since. I genuinely believe if Colm hadn’t brought him in that time, he mightn’t be playing club football now.”

*****

Before making his name as a hurler, Conor Ryan did have a shot with the Clare footballers when Micheal McDermott was in charge. He played at U21 level with Clare with Collins at the helm in 2012, a brief campaign that spring, but ultimately he has been an observer as the modern Clare football story has unfolded.

And he knows enough to appreciate the manager’s role in shaping it all.

“He’s more than just a coach to all of us. That’s why I called him straight away when I’d to stop.

“I’ll never forget when I rang him, I was 26 and I was telling this man I was retiring.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Well Ryano, at least you did your shopping early.’

“It sticks with me to this day, it was so funny.

“He’s given me advice that I’d still use in everyday life. He was always on about controlling the controllables.

“And whatever you’re doing, decide what your goal is and then every action you take after that, is that bringing you further from your goal or closer towards it.

“He hasn’t been changing his message much since we were 12 to when we’re 30.

“But you always just listen. Joe McGrath was the same. They really, really care.

“And when you have a fella who cares so much, you can’t help but just go to war for him.”

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Fintan O'Toole

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