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GER LOUGHNANE WAS RIGHT, CLARE’S 2013 WIN WAS A FLUKE

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Never a man to miss an opportunity to throw a verbal hand grenade, Ger Loughnane was in flying form after Clare’s victory over Limerick in the Munster semi-final a month ago. Many people would have been delighted that the Banner had reached the Munster final for the first time in 9 years, but the ex-manager was looking at the bigger picture at the time, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“If anything, Clare look to have gone back from where they were before. People in Clare have to face a reality that, as a group, this is a limited bunch. When they won the 2013 All-Ireland it was the greatest fluke of all time. They didn’t beat Tipperary or Kilkenny, the litmus test in this era. Until they show consistency or beat a big team in a big game you’d have to say that this Clare team are over-rated. You can’t be making excuses for them all the time”

Now obviously that’s pretty hard hitting, and you would expect nothing less from “a lunatic from Clare” as Brian Cody once called him. Here’s the thing though: Loughnane was probably right.

If we are to compare Clare’s All-Ireland victory in comparison with sporting shocks of recent years, it ranks around the Leicester City level of surprise. Sure, they won the big one, and they did well to win it, considering sides like Mayo and Galway who always stumble at the final hurdle, but it hasn’t actually led to any sustained period of success.

Think of other teams in modern times who only won 1 All-Ireland, like Tipperary in 2001, and you still have a side that was reaching semi-finals consistently afterwards. The Clare team of the 90’s solidified their greatness with a second All-Ireland in 1997.  Even Wexford, who won the All-Ireland unexpectedly in 1996, followed it up with a Leinster title the year after. But since 2013, this Clare side have done the square root of F all.

In the four years since that glorious summer, they’ve not even got back to Croke Park.  They’ve reached 2 quarter finals and been knocked out in the qualifiers on two other occasions. Peculiarly enough, since 2013, Clare footballers have played in Croke Park more often than their hurlers. So, to those who argue that 2013 wasn’t a fluke, the question must be asked, “Where is the evidence otherwise?”

Not only that, but before 2013, the team struggled massively. From 2007 to 2012 they never reached an All-Ireland semi-final, and only got to one Munster final in 2008. You could reasonably say that hurling in the county has been in decline ever since Anthony Daly’s side got to back to back semi-finals in the mid 00’s.

The flip side of that, is that during the same period, Clare have enjoyed unprecedented success at underage level. They’ve won 4 All-Ireland under 21 titles in the last 8 years, and 2 Munster minor championships at the start of this decade. But that merely highlights the fact that at senior level, with those players fully grown up now, Clare should be doing better.

Jackie Tyrrell wrote a very interesting piece after the Munster final (http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/jackie-tyrrell-timid-clare-got-exactly-what-they-deserved-1.3153912 ) where he mentioned how he is still confused by what Clare’s approach is. They may have won that All-Ireland, but have seemed to gained no great confidence or belief from it. Is it that the Clare hurlers themselves are happy to have won just one Celtic Cross and are lacking the hunger for more? Or are they just too nice to succeed in the cut throat world of inter-county hurling?

It’s also worth noting that the Clare hurling public doesn’t seem to have embraced this team as much as it did the one of the 90’s. That’s peculiar in a sense, as this current side has as much, if not more talent in their ranks, particularly in the forwards. But the team of this decade don’t seem to have that war-like mentality, that made Loughnane’s side so beloved in their own county.

Saturday’s game was another classic of the Clare 2014-2017 genre. It was their typical “nearly, but not quite” performance, peppered with wides, mistakes and misplaced puck outs. What made it all the more galling is that this was a game that was there for the taking. Tipperary were struggling massively with their keeper and full back line ready to be beaten and yet the Banner men still couldn’t take advantage of it.

A number of the team’s key men didn’t produce their best in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Tony Kelly was taken off with 5 minutes to go. It seemed a crazy decision at the time, and it appears even more so now, but what can’t be denied is that the Ballyea man wasn’t at his best during the summer. Perhaps the club’s extended run throughout Winter and Spring took too much from him. He was a hurler of the year before, and could well be again, but he badly needs to recharge the batteries.

Podge Collins was another who struggled this year. He’s another supremely talented player whose form has tailed off. Perhaps his awful cruciate injury from a few years ago stunted his progress. You could argue a couple of years playing football then combining the 2 didn’t help either. And while his stick-work is fantastic, his lack of size will always be an issue.

That gets to the nub of perhaps one of the biggest issues that is facing this Clare side: some of their most talented hurlers are not the best at winning possession. There’s an argument to be made that one of their big problems is due to a lack of ball-winners in the forward line. Every side who wants to win an All-Ireland needs a “Brick” Walsh or “Bonnar” Maher like figure, someone who can win the dirty ball up top and distribute it to others. Clare have continuously picked the best hurlers on their team, but they’re not necessarily the most effective. It was only when Peter Duggan was introduced that the side saw some real benefit in that area.

The turning point in the game was probably the 5 or so minutes before half time when Clare conceded 4 points in a row, to go from being one point behind, to 5 down. A lot of the problems were caused by Andrew Fahey hitting short puck outs that were either fumbled by his own players, or gleefully gobbled up by Tipperary’s. While you could conclude Fahey shouldn’t have pucked the ball out short, the counter argument is that if you can’t win the ball in the half forward line, what puck out strategy are you supposed to have?

On the other hand, you could claim that Clare might have won both their Munster final and quarter-final. They drove a terrible 19 wides in Saturday’s game and Aaron Cunningham missed a glorious goal-scoring opportunity in the second half. Likewise, in the Munster final, they hit 15 wides, missed a penalty, while having goal attempts strike the post and crossbar.  Then again, winning close games is where a team earns it corn. Kilkenny were still able to eke out victories in tight games in recent years, despite a diminution of their power. It’s not necessarily a matter of quality, but more one of mental strength. But Clare have got into a habit of losing close contests, and while that gives the impression that the team is not far off, it’s not necessarily an easy trait to fix.

The good news for Clare hurling is that there should be continuity with their management team next year, as Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor look certain to stay on. It’s been a challenging first year for them. As Moloney himself mentioned post game “We’ve learned more in the last 8 months, than we did in the past 8 years”. The two men are hugely respected within the county and have a track record of bringing underage All-Ireland success in the recent past. So, despite the “limited bunch” analysis by Loughnane, there’s no question this group has potential. The bad news is that, when it comes to this, or any team, how long does “potential” actually last?

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