IT’S ten years since Gary Brennan was given his first championship start for Clare — it’s safe to say that a lot has changed in that time.
Back then Clare crashed out of the championship in the first round to Waterford in Fraher Field and there was no back door, instead it was just an All-Ireland B game against Louth in Cusack Park that was lost.
Contrast that with Clare’s most recent championship experience under Brennan’s watch as captain — six championship games in the same season for the first time ever, a first Croke Park appearance in a couple of generations, an All-Ireland quarter-final.
“It was unprecedented for a lot of us,” says Brennan, before admitting, “we took a lot from the fact that we reached the last eight”.
Still, behind it all the tinge of disappointment in the Clare captain’s voice is a great barometer to just how far Clare football has come in the last decade. “It was great to be involved getting towards the latter stages of the championship, but the way it finished up [against Kerry] didn’t reflect a lot of the work we had put in during the year.
“But it would be very foolish for us to start thinking about last eight or any of those things at this time of the year — we’re literally trying to focus on this Limerick game and getting ourselves into the best place possible for this week and giving ourselves the best chance possible of producing a disciplined and level performance. We want to try and push it again to see can we improve ourselves further.”
Life in Division 2 offered the scope for such improvement, but while many Clare commentators would have been happy with consolidation at this higher level, Brennan doesn’t hide his feelings on the overall campaign.
“There was a sense of disappointment with our overall performances in the league,” he says. “We probably felt that we didn’t give the best account of ourselves that we could have. We were very disappointing against Meath and up in Fermanagh was a big disappointment.
“On the other side of that there was the fabulous display against Cork — with three points from our first two games we had a decent start, but certainly there were performances in the league that would be well below the standard that we’d hope to set for ourselves, so it’s important that we try and get more level performances, a more consistent level of work and effort for next Sunday,” he adds.
All to do with hitting the ground running against Limerick, neighbours who have been on the receiving end of defeats to Clare in 2012, ’15 and ’16, even if there was only a kick of the ball between them at all times.
Of course, Brennan is expecting more of the same.
“It’s never an easy game against Limerick, whether it’s McGrath Cup, league or championship or whatever it is, it’s always a tough physical battle and you always have to be playing well to beat them. There were periods early on in my career when we struggled to beat them, but we always felt that we had a chance of beating them most times. There was never much between ourselves and Limerick.
“We’re in a slightly different situation now, but history shows that there’s never anything in these games and it’s always down to the day — you only have to look back at the scores and three points is probably the most a team has had to spare on either side. We’re expecting that again and since the Meath game in the league our focus has been on Limerick and it’s nice to be finally getting close to it now,” he adds.
Along the way it has been about raising standards — accentuating the positives from the league and trying to eliminate the negatives as they bid for a fourth successive win over the Shannonsiders, while according to Brennan it’s about being tunnel-visioned about the whole process.
“It’s important for us that we don’t look what’s around us and that we focus on improving our own standards and getting ourselves to the best possible level we can,” he says. “It’s up to us how hard we work and how hard we work for each other and for the team and how much we’re willing to put into it. That will determine the level of success we have this year.
“We know that a game against Limerick is never over until you’re in the carpark afterwards. I think it’s just important for us to try and work on those things that have served us well — try and get the ball moving quickly, try and work hard. That is the basic requirement. It is very important that we go out there on Sunday ready to work as hard as we possibly can. If we can do that we can’t ask for much more.”
And Clare will win.