Call him skipper, call him sweeper, Patrick Donnellan doesn’t mind one bit as he prepares to lead Clare out onto the hallowed turf once more, this time in an All-Ireland final. Eoin Brennan reports.
“It’s great, I suppose it’s somewhere that we didn’t expect to be at the start of the year,” admits Clare captain Patrick Donnellan. “We would have had a lot of expectations but it’s great to be here and to be looking forward to an All-Ireland.
“We’ve come a long way from losing to Cork in the championship. When you look at it, we would have been hugely disappointed to lose to Cork that day and you would have analysed it and saw where we could have done better.
“And I suppose we just regrouped and in the next few weeks, we got a couple of victories under our belts and moved on from week to week, being very glad to come out with the win and just give ourselves a chance of getting to the big day and perhaps getting one over on Cork.”
Once the formalities are out of the way though, the conversation soon regresses to his recent defensive position. Sweeper?
“Ya sweeper I think is the buzz word for now. It’s probably considered a football role alright but a lot of teams are using it these days and people seem to be making a lot more out of it for us for some reason, I don’t know why.
“The likes of Waterford would regularly put Brick Walsh back in the hole and let him sweep away but I suppose when it works, it comes to the fore a bit more, people latch onto it and it’s something to talk about but if I don’t play well or other lads around me don’t play well, the sweeper tactics are gone out the window anyway. You still have to win your own ball, you still have to get out in front and you still have to do the right things on the day.
“I get plenty of stick off the lads like ‘it’s easy run around when there’s no-one to hook you or block you’ but I would be trying to put it back on them that ‘I’m trying to cover for all of them’ so it plays both ways.
“Ah no, we are a team when we go out on the field and if we aren’t looking after each other and we aren’t doing what we are meant to do, then we’ll all fall down together so we are just very mindful that we all perform as a unit and perform as well as we can.”
Regardless of the various roles and positioning, it’s all about unearthing the best team performance on the day in Donnellan’s eyes, an unerring focus from game to game that has been the predominant source of self-belief and confidence in their success so far this year.
“Look, we were not entitled to look ahead of the game in front of us at any stage. We are not a team that has a huge amount of experience or medals behind us so we don’t have that sense of entitlement and it would be wrong of us to think that way.
“We don’t have that history behind us so we just make sure that we are preparing as good as we can and we are looking after our performance every day. And we know that if we do the necessary work, we’ll be there or thereabouts on the day hopefully, with the bit of quality and hurling that we have that we’ll come out on top.
“People’s perceptions change, no more than if a team performs well one day they’re brilliant and then the next day, they’re very poor so people’s perceptions are fickle and if you read into it too much, you might get carried away. From our point of view, you just be hoping that we can keep our feet on the ground and just looking after our own camp and do everything necessary to get the most out of ourselves.”
And according to the O’Callaghan’s Mills clubman, the same fickleness applies to perceptions of the management and their tactics.
“He [Davy] is made out to be a great tactician but that’s fickle too as there was no one talking about how great Clare’s tactics were at the beginning of the year. A manager sets the example for a team, has a huge amount of influence over the overall performance and overall preparation but when we go out on the field, we have to perform individually and he can’t have too much of an influence over that. He just tries to make sure we are preparing as well as we can and that it will come out on the field.”
So what of opponents Cork and their strengths having played them on four previous competitive matches this year?
“What is always impressive about Cork is their stickwork and their level of individual ability and it’s something that you would always see down through the years. I suppose they revolutionised the game in terms of short passing and stickwork with their teams five or six years ago but there are loads of qualities to that Cork team.
“They were being written off at the start of the year no more than we were but we would have known after playing them four or five times that they have a huge amount of strength-in-depth to them, they have a great manager and a tradition behind them too. They are the form team as they are the ones who beat Kilkenny and were very unlucky in the Munster final that they had a man sent off and it could have been a lot closer maybe if they hadn’t.
“They have a huge amount of threats that we need to be very aware of the next day and we know that even if we are a couple of per cent below where we need to be, we will come out on the losing side so we are very mindful of their qualities.
“So we’re looking forward to the next day, looking forward to playing Cork and to line out in an All-Ireland but the games we have played against them so far are irrelevant to the performance that we need to have the next day.
“It’s an All-Ireland final and we need to be as well prepared as we’ve ever been for any game and I suppose we need to make sure that we are up to Cork’s level of performance and that we match them all over the field… and hopefully get a bit of luck as well.”