NFL Preview: Home comforts can catapult Clare

National Football League Division 3
Clare v Wexford
@ Cusack Park, Ennis
Sunday, February 1, at 2pm.

WHEN it came on a bitterly cold afternoon in rural Antrim last April, Clare’s escape from the clutches of Division 4 football that had weighed the county down for the guts of a generation was indeed great.
It meant a first day out in Croke Park in a decade when they locked horns with Tipperary; it meant that when championship swung around in June and July it wasn’t a case of looking for some salvation after another disappointing spring campaign. There was no pressure cooker; Clare had already achieved and whatever happened thereafter really belonged to realms of bonus material and added extras.
It might be strange for some to come to terms with league being more important to championship for teams like Clare, but such is true, just because becoming a force in championship nearly always comes against a backdrop of advancement and real progression in the league — that means playing in Division 1 or 2.
That’s why aside from having a real cut off Kerry in the championship last summer and really bothering them in the first half on the Munster semi-final only to lack the real belief at the start of the second half and then another herculean effort against Kildare before coming up short, the big thing for Clare in 2014 was that day up in Creggan when promotion was finally secured and good riddance was bellowed at that cursed Division 4.
To a point you can forget those what-might-have-beens against Kerry and Kildare, because really 2014 was all about where Clare are this week — moved up a notch in league ranking and now after months and months of hard labour on training fields and in gyms they’re itching for a cut at Division 3 football and confident as they go.
Confident in their ability to measure up against anything thrown at them in the division, starting with Wexford on St Brigid’s Day.
Save Kieran McGeeney who will bring his Armagh amalgam of MMA (mixed-martial-arts) and football to Cusack Park, it couldn’t really get any bigger for Clare in the Division as it will on this first day out. It’s all to do with Wexford’s impressive credentials and results over much of the past decade.
They became a force in Leinster under Jason Ryan’s watch and reached the All-Ireland semi-final back in 2008, while since then only Dublin’s dominance has prevented them from winning a first Leinster title since Nicky Rackard’s time in ’45.
That’s a big challenge for Clare, but where this game and there greater challenge of the seven-match campaign is concerned, the league couldn’t have gotten off to a better start than it did a few months back.
That’s when the gurus up in Croke Park knocked heads and came up with the fixtures list, Clare boss Colm Collins noted at the time “we couldn’t have done better had we made them ourselves”.

It’s a great opportunity because such is the level of preparation and determination to get to a much better football place that it will be a confident Clare side that takes the field in their maiden voyage this Sunday.

It’s the fact that the Wexford, Sligo, Armagh and Fermanagh games are at home, while the only journey of note is the second round game to Louth, with the other road trips being the games against Tipperary and Limerick that represent familiar territory.
It all adds up to Clare having a great chance of making the county’s biggest leap in league football since the heady days of the 1990s when the warm wind of post Munster Championship success in ’92 was backed up by impressive league form when the county was able to mix it with teams that had traditionally operated at a much higher level.
Down, Mayo and Monaghan came to Cusack Park and were beaten, while an Armagh team that was slowly building towards Ulster glory in ’99 were accounted for up in Lurgan as Clare completed a meteoric rise from the basement to the top tier of league football.
There’ll be no talk of top tier football coming back to the Banner just yet, but holding their own in Division 3 and then kicking on to mount a promotion challenge is something that should be looming large.
It’s certainly within the radar of management and players as preparation levels have been ratcheted up a few notches in the past year — the motto being the bigger the challenge, the better the preparations.
That’s why four and five training sessions a week, and sometimes more, has become the norm — also factor in a recent training weekend away, all against the backdrop of non-participation in the McGrath Cup for the second successive year.
The argument to compete in the tournament was a compelling one as it offered the chance to give new recruits to the squad like young guns Keelan Sexton and Darren Nagle a run, same with former Dublin player Pat Burke after throwing in his lot with Clare.
Thing is, the case for the defence — the one that all roads lead to 1 February and the Wexford game in Miltown, with no distractions of games en route — is equally sound. After all, remember back in Frank Doherty’s time when Clare beat Limerick in the McGrath Cup final in Cooraclare thanks to David Tubridy’s late penalty goal, but instead of being the spring board to league glory the team just bombed.
Same after a highly encouraging McGrath Cup final against Kerry in Killarney in 2011 when only going down by four points — it was followed by league implosion after early defeats to Leitrim and Carlow that killed any promotion hopes in February.
So it is that the Wexford game will be Clare’s first competitive outing since July and that heartbreaking, but lesson-learning, 0-13 to 0-12 defeat to Kildare in championship — six months is a long time without a game, but the hope is that home advantage will be the springboard.
Why not?
It would be the tonic to fact into the journey to Drogheda the following Sunday against a Louth team whose league record over the past few years has been pretty poor — they didn’t win a game in Division 2 last year.
In those two games on successive weekends could lie the kernel of Clare’s league hopes before the break until the first Sunday in March — victories in both won’t make them because there’ll be a lot of football to be player thereafter, but defeats could break them. That’s why Colm Collins’ goal of hitting the ground running cannot be underscored in any way.
It’s a great opportunity because such is the level of preparation and determination to get to a much better football place that it will be a confident Clare side that takes the field in their maiden voyage this Sunday.
As they do, the key qualities they showed last year, particularly when facing into that wind whistling in from Lough Neagh, is what will steel them, just as the memory of the fade-outs experienced against Kerry and Kildare in championship will also be foremost in their thoughts.
You can’t do that against high quality opposition and expect to get away with it. You can’t do that in Division 3 and expect promotion.
For Clare, learning the lessons of recent history is being forearmed for the future.
That immediate future is winning promotion to Division 2 for 2016 and this emerging Clare team can do that.


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