July 8, 2017, Dean Ryan’s last competitive appearance for Clare in Cusack Park in a high-profile All-Ireland Round 3 Qualifier showdown with All-Ireland finalists Mayo that promised so much but would only deliver another moral victory after a brace of early second half goals from the O’Connor brothers Cillian and Diarmuid laid waste to the Banner’s genuine hopes of an upset.
Having hit the ground running to soar 0-6 to 0-1 clear by the end of the opening quarter, Clare still led by two at the break with the wind to come. However, while the goals would prove the decisive sucker-punches to their championship lives, the over-riding assessment was that akin to their Munster Championship exit to Kerry that was eerily similar in terms of its narrative, Clare just didn’t possess enough strength or impact from the bench.
18 months on from that ill-fated day, Dean Ryan’s return to the fold has been accompanied by heightened optimism of Clare’s current strength-in-depth, having seen a lot of new players blooded in his absence in Australia.
“I suppose in terms of the squad that would have been there when I left, there has been a good lot of turnover of players but there is a lot of youth in the panel at the moment which is good. There has been a lot of lads brought in last year that have made a big difference and there has been a couple more this year on top of that that will definitely add to the strength of the panel which is exactly what you need going forward, especially against the bigger teams.”
Central to the Dublin-based defender’s newfound enthusiasm has been the retention of Colm Collins’ services for a sixth year as manager.
“It was definitely the deciding factor for myself coming back into the squad knowing that Colm was still involved because he knows Clare football inside out and it’s brilliant that he is still there. He is great at bringing in young lads from different areas of the county and then mixing young and experience so long may it continue. And considering the effort he has put in and results that he has gotten over the last five years, hopefully we can build on that for 2019.”
A first McGrath Cup title in 11 years isn’t a bad start to that goal but it’s the National League where Clare have learned their craft most over the last two seasons since making the step up to Division 2.
‘Look, the McGrath Cup is always good early in the year to get lads a bit of a run out and try out a couple of tactics that we have in mind but definitely, we’re looking forward to getting going in the National League this Sunday. Division 2 is going to be a tough one this year with the teams that came down from Division 1 and the two that came up as well from Division 3. But we’re definitely targeting the next couple of games in the coming weeks to try and hit the ground running.
“You can’t really be looking at the end game of promotion which is the ultimate goal obviously as there is a lot of football to be played over the next three weeks.”
The first obstinate hurdle in Clare’s Division 1 path are reigning Ulster champions and Super 8 qualifiers Donegal who will undoubtedly be coming to Cusack Park this Sunday intent on bouncing right back up to the top tier at the first attempt.
“No game is going to be easy in this division but I feel that it’s a nice test and a great way to start to be honest. I wouldn’t be too worried about it in terms of it probably being our toughest fixture but it will definitely set the benchmark I suppose of where we are and where we need to get to going forward.
“I think we always perform well at home and we have done over the past few years especially with Colm [Collins] trying to make Cusack Park a fortress and make it tough for teams to come here. And that’s the aim that’s going to be there against Donegal and the aim for all our home games right across the League.”
Provided that goes according to plan, what are the ultimate goals that Ryan and Co. would like to strive for?
“We’re only targeting one game at a time at the moment for Division 2, in such a minefield that’s all we can do really. But overall, hopefully we can make that push for 2019. The lads did brilliantly last year, they just fell short coming in third but we are looking to take that one step further, get one of those top two places and definitely kick on then.
“It would have a massive, massive impact on our championship campaign going forward if we could get up to Division 1.”