All-Ireland Senior Championship Qualifiers Round 1
Clare v Wexford @ Cusack Park, Ennis, Saturday 3.30pm (Cathal McAllister, Cork)
Don’t let the low-key build up fool you, this is a hugely pivotal game for Clare and not only in terms of putting their All-Ireland title on the line this Saturday. Following their recent reverse to Cork, Clare are the equivalent of a jilted lover, with an air of vulnerability and self pity surrounding them after a second successive Munster Semi-final defeat.
Last year, they reacted in determined fashion with a home pummelling of Laois that began an unforgettable summer of momentum and success. But this year’s road to redemption has been rockier as their preparations have been hampered by injury, in some cases a lack of form as well as a constant rumour mill surrounding both the players and management.
Rediscovering their form is essential this weekend as Wexford come to Ennis gunning for a upset. Having forced extra-time in last year’s qualifier meeting between the pair, they have only improved this year running Dublin to only five points and have added an extra physicality to their game as manager Liam Dunne seems to be moulding his young side into clones of his former playing self.
The difference this year for Clare is that they now know how good they can be following last September’s success but it may have to take some tough selection decisions to get the mix right as the form of some players, particularly defensively has been worrying.
The question remains however, do Clare have the options to change their line-up? Yes, they used 30 players in the National League but realistically it’s more like 21 or 22 in contention for places. After all, the Banner were extremely fortunate in last year’s All-Ireland route through the qualifiers that they didn’t suffer any injuries and even with a full squad, only 21 players played more than 70 minutes in eight championship games in 2013. However, already the treatment table is being overused this year which won’t help the selection headache.
That said, on paper at least, Clare still have more than enough quality to bypass their Leinster opponents but the three main frailties from the Cork game will need to be eradicated in order for Clare to prevail. Clare looked tired and flat against Cork, lacking that spark and mischievousness that epitomised last year’s success. It wasn’t a once off either as their displays against both Laois and Tipperary in the knock-out stages of the league suggested that fresh thinking and leaders were required to take the initiative.
The gameplan also needs to be more fluid. Granted, after last year’s tactical masterclasses in the All-Ireland series, it’s difficult to be critical but once the initial gameplan failed against Cork, Clare were more intent on blaming the referee rather than trying to alter their own luck.
Finally, they will need to start finding the net once more if they are to shake off the expected stubborn Wexford challenge. They did get two against Cork but they seemed mere consolations that anything else and getting off to a good start is key to Clare this Saturday in front of their home supporters.
Most significantly however, rebounding back to winning ways by whatever means possible is key this Saturday. A good performance will be a bonus but after successive competitive defeats, the result is all that ultimately matters to crank up the Clare machine once more.