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Saturday 1 October 2016

Banner on the road to Croker

Victory for Fitzy's men will pour further scorn on Tribemen following winter of discontent

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

To describe an All-Ireland quarter-final as a "must-win" game for both sides is to invite ridicule from the Statement of the Bleedin' Obvious Police.

And yet that's exactly what this is - and not just because the losers will slink out the back gate of Semple Stadium, the dream expired for another year.

Clare's desire is self-evident: they have been waiting three years for the chance to get back into Croke Park and this summer is the first time they have even threatened to do so.

Who would have thought it would take so long for such a young, talented and upwardly-mobile group, as they celebrated that spectacular replay success against Cork to land Liam MacCarthy in 2013?

The irony is that, just as the promise of a Croker return looms into view, Davy Fitzgerald has found himself dominating the hurling headlines from a hospital bed this week.

Galway forward Joe Canning. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway forward Joe Canning. Photo: Sportsfile

Fitzgerald's health after this week's minor heart surgery, to have two angioplasty stents inserted, is obviously the most important concern ... but tomorrow's huge occasion still won't quite seem the same if the Clare manager isn't there in person.

Whether or not Davy Fitz is fit to prowl the touchline, Clare are well served with backroom expertise in the guise of Donal Óg Cusack, Louis Mulqueen et al.

They won't, you suspect, lack for guidance.

Galway's All-Ireland hurt has lasted far longer than Clare's - 28 years and counting.

However, the motivation for this current squad stems largely from what happened last year, when they conspired to lose a September decider that appeared there for the taking at half-time.

The saga of the managerial heave that followed has been recycled to death: suffice to say that, by ultimately forcing the resignation of Anthony Cunningham, the Galway players ratcheted up the pressure on themselves into the red zone.

They knew this. They knew who'd be blamed if Galway came a cropper in the championship.

And then they lost another game to Kilkenny that appeared well within their grasp at half-time.

In fairness to those players and to their new manager, Micheál Donoghue, there was lots to admire in Galway's Leinster final first half; nor were they the first (or last) opponent to suffer the consequences of Kilkenny's famed third-quarter power surge.

Sceptics

The sceptics will have left Croke Park that afternoon, convinced that here was the same old Galway subject to the same old frailties and destined to endure the same barren end-game.

Others, though, spied enough flashes of promise to argue that their All-Ireland race isn't yet run.

We're inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

After all, Galway's Leinster SHC final performance in 2015 offered less encouragement than this year's; and yet they regrouped to tackle the All-Ireland series with gusto, demolishing Cork at this last-six stage as a prequel to their epic semi-final victory over Tipperary.

There is a difference, though: Clare are not Cork. Or at least, Clare playing close to potential are several steps ahead of the Cork side that flopped over the past two summers.

In truth, it's still far too early to say Clare are back in their 2013 pomp. The closest they have come to that remains their Division 1 semi-final rout of Kilkenny, at tomorrow's venue; but that was April and that was the league.

Even the hope that sprung from their thrilling finish to pip Waterford in the league final replay was quickly dissipated by the manner of their Munster exit to the same opposition.

What have we seen from the Banner since then?

A cakewalk win over Laois (move on, nothing to be learned here) and a deserved four-point victory over Limerick that still failed to convince the doubters.

Why, for example, having seemingly crushed Limerick's resistance by the midpoint, did they leave the outcome in the balance for so long?

Given the memory of how Clare crashed and burned in the qualifiers against Wexford (2014) and Cork (2015), Davy Fitz would have settled for a win of any ilk against their Shannonside rivals.

As it was, there were collective positives (the level of control displayed as they rattled off nine unanswered points to lead by six at the break) and portents of individual promise too in the performances of sweeper Cian Dillon and the attacking triumvirate of Tony Kelly, Shane O'Donnell and Podge Collins.

But the double-jobbing Collins is set to be on football qualifier duty today - scarcely ideal preparation for what promises to be a white-knuckle contest here.

By the same token, Galway will know they can't afford a reprise of their Leinster final second half.

They will know that they need more from Joe Canning; and Canning will know that too.

Galway will also be wary of their historically poor quarter-final record (last year bucked the trend) and warier still of how they were comprehensively beaten by Clare at this very stage three years ago.

That performance was the first real signal that Davy Fitz's Clare were All-Ireland contenders.

Now the time has come for them to show it again.

ODDS: Galway 5/4 Draw 9/1 Clare 4/5

VERDICT: Clare

All-Ireland SHC q-final: Clare v Galway, Thurles tomorow (4.0), live RTé 1

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