Goals win games: our footballers scored three, conceded none and won; our hurlers scored none, leaked four and lost.
The maths sound simple and the story behind the figures is straightforward too. Our hurling was awful, first half especially. There was a pick-up in the third quarter before Conor McGrath quashed any rising notions and in truth Clare’s margin could easily have stretched into double digits.
Three poor performances now (the Waterford win was fortunate) and the dipping confidence of the followers is being matched only by the rising chorus of criticism. Flagging spirits all round need urgent reviving next Sunday – not an easy task at Salthill.
The pre-match news of the withdrawal of O’Mahony, Maher and Callanan was ominous. Soon our fears were being realised. A dysfunctional attack and a stretched defence quickly sent this tie on an inevitable trajectory. Clare’s two-man full forward line created acres of space and just as critically their hurling was snappy and precise whereas ours was clumsy and wayward.
The first major breach came on ten minutes. Conor McGrath hustled Stapleton off the ball out in the left corner – illegally perhaps – before coming in and planting low past Gleeson in goal. There would be two more before the break, Podge Collins racing in and drawing the cover to set up McGrath for the second and centre back, Hamill, being caught out in the lead up to the third which was dispatched by Conlon.
Against all that we had little to show and went in eight down at the break. The third goal cost Hamill his place, Conor O’Mahony coming in despite being deemed unfit in advance. Nine first half wides compounded our problems but let’s not hide behind false comforts – Clare were vastly superior.
The seekers of positives will point to the third quarter and a mini Tipp revival, which pared the lead back to just three points, John O’Dwyer, Shane Bourke and Jason Forde all on target. O’Mahony was now a steadying force on the ‘forty’. Davy reacted by drafting in reinforcements such as Tony Kelly, Shane O’Donnell and Cathal McInerney. Then, as he’d done in the All Ireland replay, up pops Conor McGrath to douse the rising flames with his third major.
The final quarter in truth was a playing out of time. We kept chipping away at the points – twenty is a decent total especially alongside fifteen wides – but the goals had done the damage. We’ve haemorrhaged nine now in two games, which is a dreadful statistic. Saves by Gleeson from Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell prevented further embarrassment though at the other end ‘Bubbles’ was denied earlier and Noel McGrath fluffed another chance.
The manager says he feels no pressure but I’m afraid the rest of us are less phlegmatic about current events. This is a major fall-off from the optimism of the start of season and unless we can steady the ship rapidly then a relegation battle looms.
For whatever reason there’s neither shape nor system to our hurling at the moment and if this continues much longer then every ounce of confidence will be drained from the players. Injuries have been unhelpful with ten or twelve panellists on the list at present. We keep hearing that some are just about ready to return but we’re now over half way through the league series and the team is floundering badly.
O’Mahony’s value to the side was underlined when he came on before half time. He’s clearly still our best option for centre back. The Kieran Bergin experiment is another that needs revising; for all his earnestness his instincts are defensive. Shane McGrath divides opinion. He played a lot of ball on Sunday, some of it very poorly placed. Still his tearaway energy excites people when he dashes forward, though his defensive qualities going back are less commendable. As a general policy moving people from their ‘natural’ positions doesn’t work, apart from some rare exceptions.
A top priority surely is to find some stability in defence. Michael Cahill remains our lone star in this zone though I think Cathal Barrett has a lot of potential if he’s part of a better structure. Paddy Stapleton has struggled since returning from injury and a major issue is the lack of an acceptable number three. Paul Curran is back in training and he may well be our best option come championship time. Michael Breen is another possibility for this spot but injury has kept him out.
A major worry for the team overall is the failure of newcomers to impact. Tossy Hamill got his chance on Sunday but looked well off the pace of the game. He strikes me as one of those players who has many fine qualities but is still performing at minor intensity. His sluggishness in the lead up to the third goal typified the problem
The attack remains a major headache. Noel McGrath’s contribution was again patchy though John O’Dwyer did better. The rest posed little threat. Conor Kenny took his scores well when introduced though his second point right at the end summed up what we lacked in this area. There was an opening for goal but instead of driving on for it he stepped sideways and tapped over. We don’t seem to have those players with the ‘straight line’ attitude to go for it, Michael Heffernan another who’ll skip away to the side and opt for a point. Callanan was a major loss and we dearly need ‘Bonner’ back too.
Then there’s Brendan Maher struggling majorly with his form at present. I think he’s trying too hard, lunging at things and not steadying up. With more composure he has the potential to be a major influence on the team. Woodlock is another who divides opinion, full of athleticism and daring but then his striking regularly lets him down.
In all of this the management doesn’t escape the flak either. It was incomprehensible that we allowed Clare isolate our two full backs in that first half for those goals when an extra defender could have provided cover. Davy easily won the tactical battle on this occasion.
Clare look formidable and Conor McGrath is their key player. They won’t be easily unseated this year.
Our league record against Galway in recent seasons is very impressive and hopefully that trend will survive next Sunday. The absence of the Portumna players is an obvious advantage though after their defeat to Waterford last Sunday their need for points is now as urgent as ours. It should ensure a full-blooded collision. A win here would do a lot to lift the present gloom and ease the pressure for the final game versus Dublin. A lot depends on the selection we send into action; last Sunday’s team would beat very few.
Meanwhile the All Ireland club will this year be watched with extra interest. Mount Leinster Rangers bring added freshness to the event and will have most neutral support, mine included. They’ve defied the odds thus far and hopefully they’ll complete the job though I can’t get past my suspicion that Portumna will have that little bit too much for the Carlow men. I’d celebrate being wrong on this one.