Clare captain Gary Brennan is one of the best midfielders in the country, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, so it’s only right that he gets to play in Croke Park.
THE week after Leitrim won this year’s FBD League, the starman and captain of the team Emlyn Mulligan was invited onto ‘Saturday Sport’ on RTÉ Radio 1 presented by Des Cahill.
Mulligan, who is one of the best forwards in the game, had uploaded a picture onto his twitter account after the FBD triumph over Roscommon – it was the trophy belted into the front seat of his car.
On ‘Saturday Sport’ he talked about that and more – about what it was like playing for the minnows of Leitrim who have claimed one solitary Connacht Senior Championship since 1927.
Mulligan talked about the commitment and the few rewards of a couple of FBD Leagues and about never having played in Croke Park before – it seems preposterous that one of the best forwards in the country might never get to play there doesn’t it – and hoping that 2014 might be the year.
Had Gary Brennan been beside Mulligan in Montrose, or else down in the Baile na hAbhainn studio of TG4 as a guest on Dara Ó Cinnéide’s ‘Seo Spóirt’, where he is a regular panellist, he could tell a strikingly similar story.
Clare with one Munster Senior Championship since 1917; the huge commitment willingly given to play for the Clare footballers; the crumb of a McGrath Cup title a few years back; the tale of never having played in Croke Park.
Emlyn Mulligan, one of the best forwards in country; Gary Brennan, one of the best midfielders in the country.
Always Off Broadway.
For Mulligan it’s still the case, but for Brennan that’s about to end.
It’s why Saturday, on a personal level, has to be a huge day. For Brennan, and for many more with him on the Clare squad, who have never played a game there.
THE Clondegad man had a few training sessions in Croke Park when he was a trialist with the International Rules squad a few years back, but this is different, even if he initially plays down the prospect.
“Once the ball is thrown in there are white lines all around it – there are goal posts at either end and that’s it,” he says, debunking any notion that Croke Park is different and will be different on Saturday.
But, at the same time he knows it’s very different and will be. “There’s no doubt that it’s a very attractive feature of the game that we’re going to Croke Park,” he admits. “You can only listen to what other players have said – players seem to love going to Croke Park and playing there, so we will be hoping that it will be the same for us. It will certainly be novel and it’s certainly something we’re really looking forward to.”
And, for Brennan et al it’s about much more than being there – it’s Croke Park, but at the same time it’s another key staging post in what is seen as the incremental improvement within the team with every passing performance.
“Yes the main objective at the start of the year was to get promotion,” concedes Brennan. “It was everything, but now we move on from that. This is only the second time since I started playing for Clare that I’m playing in a big final.
“The goal of promotion has been achieved but that’s parked now; it’s gone, it’s in the past so we’ve got to look at the next thing we can achieve and going to Croke Park, getting an opportunity to play there and win something playing with Clare. That’s a big target for us.
“Whatever has been the record in the past, we have an opportunity as a group of players to go and win something. Any chance you get to do that in a Clare jersey, you have to try and make the most of it and achieve it. We are trying to build on promotion now and progress another step. That means a good performance and hopefully a victory in Croke Park,” he adds.
Brennan has been a colossal figure in Clare’s long march to Croke Park – as captain of the team and the driving force, whether from the middle of the park or the edge of square when adding some punch and cutting edge to the team’s scoring efforts.
Take your pick from a number of displays: his dominance in the first half of the opening game against Waterford that laid some early foundations for Clare’s successful campaign; the second half against Leitrim when he took the game by the scruff against the wind; the goal scoring performances against Wicklow, Carlow and London; the second half against Antrim.
Clare looked to be teetering on the brink of another league failure at half-time in that Antrim game – only 0-4 to 0-2 up when facing into the wind gusting in from Lough Neagh and staring at another fall at the final league hurdle.
“We knew at half-time that we hadn’t played all that well,” he recalls. “That had happened to us in other games as well, but thankfully we were able to react to it and adapt and get the result in the end. You have to look on it as a positive that we did dig it out when things weren’t going perfectly,” he adds.
The one day when Clare weren’t able to dig it out was against Tipperary, although a thundering run by Brennan in the dying moments almost yielded a goal that could have saved the day, only for his low drive to hit the butt of the post and go wide.
“Being our only defeat this year, the Tipperary game would be the performance we’re least happy about in a lot of ways,” says Brennan. “I think there was quite a difference between this year’s game and last year’s game against them (Clare lost by six points in Cusack Park).
“The goals didn’t help us and from a team perspective we didn’t defend all that well against Tipperary. That’s not singling out any one particular area of the team but as a team we didn’t defend as we could have.
“It’s a good thing that we get a chance to test ourselves and see how we have improved since then. They have experience and have younger players coming through who have been involved with successful teams at minor and under 21.
“They have strong players, but as do we. We will be hoping to try and bridge that gap – if gap is the right term. We’ll be hoping to show that the result (in Thurles) didn’t reflect the level of improvement we have made. There’s no reason for us not to believe that Clare can’t be up there along side them and potentially beating them.”
Saturday from 5pm will tell all as Clare finally come in from Off Broadway.