CONTRADICTORY though it sounds, sometimes you have to take a step backwards in order to go forward and get going in the right direction again.
It is certainly so for All-Ireland champions Clare this week as they prepare for their road trip to Wexford Park on Saturday.
Step back and remember the good times – the swagger, the brio, the devil-may-care attitude that swept the Banner County to All-Ireland glory last September.
Step back and remember those glory days, because many of the qualities that were on view in high September have been lost in action over the last few weeks.
Now, it’s of absolute necessity that Clare rediscover some of their All-Ireland final verve or else their race for 2014 will be run aground on the rocks of Wexford Park next Saturday.
Clare should have been beaten on Saturday – and if it had happened there could have been no complaints. Wexford were the better team, the more determined team, the hungrier team for much of the 90 minutes. End of.
For Clare, it was by sheer force of will and some tactical improvements mid-way through their first half nightmare that ensures they’re still standing in the championship.
Conor McGrath brilliance. Patrick Kelly brilliance. Tony Kelly brilliance. Not forgetting the ultra-reliability all through of Colin Ryan, who only had two misses from 14 shots on goal.
Without this quartet Clare were gone, but it said loads about their qualities of character as much as their hurling that the collective effort was there when it mattered most and somehow they were able to pull themselves back from the brink.
Clare didn’t just get out of jail in Cusack Park – they scaled the big walls of Alcatraz, swam against the currents and rip-tides of San Francisco Bay towards shore and somehow clambered ashore and lived to tell the tale.
That was the best thing about Clare’s display – their spirit, their never-say-die, their ability to find a way while playing badly, just because that’s what champions are supposed to be made of and supposed to do.
The team and management will draw huge strength from that in the coming days.
But, there’s still no escaping the backdrop – Clare are playing badly and are badly off colour, something selector Louis Mulqueen admitted after the game when bluntly saying “we need to get our game right” because “that’s stuttering, it’s only coming in fits and starts”.
These are the bald facts of it.
It’s not about conspiracy theories, with forces trying to bring Clare down. The only people trying to bring Clare down are the opposition. Cork the first day, Wexford the last day, Wexford the next day, Waterford the day after that if Clare are still standing.
Conspiracy is what Dónal Óg Cusack was touting on The Sunday Game, just stopping short of saying that football was a source and force of evil working against Clare hurling.
It was an outrageous thesis, it was arrogant and a disgraceful affront to Collins brothers Padraic and Seán who play both codes and their father Colm who manages the county footballers.
Not wanting to single out any player, but take Darach Honan’s cameo appearance on Saturday. He helped save the day with the pass that led to the penalty at the end of normal time, but he had a bit of a nightmare otherwise.
His touch was badly off – had he been a dual star the blame for this would have been laid firmly at the door of football by some on the high stool and some off it.
It’s not football, it’s not hurling clubs fighting for their own rights. After all, a majority of the Clare squad who met after the Cork game wanted to play club championship games – this is the truth of the situation.
That’s why it’s time to take a step backwards.
And remember.
Clare got it tactically wrong at the start of Saturday’s game and soon found themselves ten points down and firefighting.
By electing to go man-to-man and not deploying a sweeper they were ripped open at the back, before the tactical acumen of Davy Fitzgerald, Paul Kinnerk et al intervened and dispatched runner Seorsie Bulfin infield to tell captain Patrick Donnellan to drop back into the sweeper’s role and bring Tony Kelly to midfield. At once everything changed.
It was the saving of the game – it stopped the rot and from there Clare gradually clawed their way back into the contest and staved off what would have been a humbling defeat.
Thing is, Wexford might set up better for the sweeper system this Saturday, so the challenge for Clare might be to come up with something else.
Like they did last September.
Remember the Kerry footballers of ‘09, they were all over the place in some early Qualifier games, but much like Clare last Saturday they refused to yield, rubbished talk of disharmony in the camp, stumbled their way to Croke Park and then caught fire and another All-Ireland was won.
Why can’t Clare do the same thing? They can still find a way. It’s what they have to believe. And champions usually think along those lines.

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