Clare and Cork chase Division 1 high life at pivotal moment of the season

WHEN DID THE relationship change?

If a turning point can be pinned down, perhaps it was on Sunday 5 March 2017.

That was the afternoon where Clare struck a blow for football in the county with a defeat of Cork in Cusack Park. It was the first for the Banner over the Rebels at senior level since Martin Daly’s legendary last-gasp goal claimed the Munster semi-final spoils in 1997 and the first in a league encounter since 1994.

Clare finished the game with eight points to spare, netting at opportune times courtesy of Cian O’Dea towards the end of the first half and Jamie Malone heading down the stretch as full time beckoned. If Cork had cause to bemoan a goal from Donal Óg Hodnett being disallowed that day and a late Colm O’Neill penalty striking the upright, there was still little doubt that the home side had earned the victory.

And it hasn’t been a result that stands in isolation. Clare followed it up in Páirc Uí Rinn on St Patrick’s Day 2018 as they claimed a two-point win. Then in February 2019 they handed out a thumping, nine points the better against a Cork side that looked demoralised by the finish.

That result would end up being crucial, the determining factor by the end of that league, as the head-to-head rule saw Clare preserve their Division 2 status, while Cork’s misery was compounded by slipping down to the third tier. Throw in the 2019 McGrath Cup final in Miltown Malbay which swung Clare’s way by three points and a clear pattern of dominance has emerged.

That is the background to the teams next meeting in Ennis this Sunday. TG4 have deemed it worthy of live TV coverage, a recognition of the significance of the game.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of the current situation facing the pair in Division 2 South. A draw or a win will guarantee Clare a promotion play-off spot, a step closer to realising a long-held ambition of this squad under the tutelage of Collins to qualify Division 1 league football. 

Clare boss Colm Collins with his players.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Cork cannot afford to lose. A draw would suffice for them if Kildare lost to Laois in the other match in the group but if Jack O’Connor’s team triumph, then Cork must match that result. In that instance it’s likely they would also have to win by more than three points to ensure they overtake Clare on scoring difference.

Thus it has the look of a crucial afternoon. It’s only three games into the league but in a compressed season, they all assume greater importance.

Considering this is a summer with a knockout championship and both are stuck in a province with Kerry, the team still identified as the biggest challengers to the kingpins Dublin. Clare have the onerous task of heading to Killarney, four weeks from Saturday, for a championship assignment as daunting as they come, while Cork are on the opposite side of the draw.

Yet when both are conducting end of season audits, league performances are likely to receive close scrutiny. Neither wants to be contemplating a relegation playoff in a fortnight against Down or Westmeath in order to stave off the drop. Both want to have a shot at Mayo or Meath to book a place at the top table in the spring of 2022. If that was achieved, regardless of their championship form, this year would already represent a success story.

Clare have begun on the front foot this month in fashioning wins over Laois and Kildare. Newcomer Daniel Walsh caught the eye with 1-2 against the former, their old stager David Tubridy hit three vital points against the latter. Their most potent attacking weapon is Eoin Cleary, the captain providing leadership in the 0-17 he has struck over the course of two games.

Cork’s displays have been mixed. They began brightly in the match with Kildare, finished with a pep in their step and were let down by a slump in between where they shipped two goals. Four points from ten chances early on in that game proved costly yet the five late points they snapped over could be important yet in terms of scoring difference.

Youngster Daniel O’Mahony has emerged impressively in defence, Sean Meehan and Sean Powter are in good form in their rearguard while their captain has also excelled, Ian Maguire powering into games from his midfield berth. The win over Laois gave some momentum to their season, a fast scoring spree helping as they raised the green flag twice in the first half. They need to tap into something similar again.

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Cork manager Ronan McCarthy.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

On Sunday, Cork must reverse the recent trend of results. A decade ago they saw off Clare in a Munster senior semi-final, the start of four wins in five seasons in championship encounters. But the 2015 tie in Páirc Uí Rinn was the last time they crossed paths in championship and since then Colm Collins has masterminded a spell of Clare control.

It’s only 12 days since the first inter-county football games of 2021 took place.

In that context it seems unreasonable to attaching such importance to one game. But inter-county teams continue to operate under much-changed conditions and the implications are clear. 

By squeezing plenty into a shorter space of time, judgements on teams will be arrived at quicker.

Sunday in Ennis will be pivotal in shaping the 2021 outlook for Clare and Cork.

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