Clare reignite old love affair
Former Banner ace warns: Team's better suited to Croke Park
On Sunday evening after Cork and Limerick played out the second improbable epic of the newly-styled All-Ireland SHC semi-final weekend, Stephen McNamara took a stroll around Ennis and spotted the rehung Clare flags lagging gently in the evening breeze.
He noticed them in the way one becomes aware of something that hasn't been there for a while but then reappears.
"They've brought something back to the county," says the 1995 and '97 All-Ireland medalist, who returned last year to Ennis after a decade living in Dublin, during which time he managed both Faughs and Ballinteer St John's.
"I went around town on Sunday evening, the Clare flags are out everywhere again. That hasn't been like that for five years.
"It was like as a county, we fell out of love with hurling," he suggests.
"And there's a love affair with these team again now. It's like 2013 or when they were winning under-21s.
"They're playing off-the-cuff hurling. There is structure in it. But there is a bit more style in it.
"And there's definitely a buzz back about the place."
A buzz that will sustain this week as that blockbuster extra-time draw with Galway is repeated in every conversation in the hurling speaking areas of Clare before rising to a crescendo when they make the familiar journey to Thurles on Sunday for the replay.
Familiar? Certainly. Preferred? Not entirely.
"A lot of people wanted to see this team back in Croke Park," McNamara points out.
"There is something about 2013; beating Limerick in a semi-final and the two days against Cork, people feel this team are made for Croke Park.
"Tony Kelly is built for it. (Shane) O'Donnell too. A few lads there, it just suits them.
"I'd have preferred the replay in Croke Park. Thurles …we lost the last two Munster finals in Thurles."
Not that they were warming much to Croke Park before 5.15 last Saturday.
Like plenty of others among the Clare congregation in the attendance of 54,191, McNamara watched the first 15 minutes through the fingers of the hands that were covering his face.
"I was very pleased with how the management reacted," McNamara notes.
"After 15 minutes, you were looking at the pitch through your fingers.
"This is going to be the biggest hiding we ever got.
"Management reacted brilliantly, made the switches, brought the boys back into play.
"And what people are forgetting is that Clare were 1-16 to 0-14 down with ten minutes to go.
"There were two comebacks.There was a character that shone through in them.
"They were gone after 15 minutes and then they were five points down with ten minutes left.
"And you're thinking the All-Ireland champions are going to kick on like they did against Kilkenny. But their character shone through."
Prior to that, Galway hunted Clare into the corners and towards the sidelines in Croke Park off every puck out and, as he McNamara admits, "blew them out of it in the tackle".
"Galway tried to suck the life out of all our forwards, to make it a battle down there and close off all the space.
"They blew them off the ball. They closed down the space."
And then came the move that saved Clare from the sort of listless championship exit that has been their curious, baffling annual affliction ever since they won the 2013 All-Ireland.
Colm Galvin didn't so much come back as a sweeper as a deep-lying play maker.
"Like a quarter-back," was McNamara's interpretation of Galvin's redrawn role.
"He sat back there like a quarter-back. Look at the passes he made. Picking out fella in space.
"Picking out (John) Conlon.
"He was just …it was a joy to watch.
"Where I was sitting, it just looked like Colm Galvin and Tony Kelly hauled them back into the game.
"I think the two of them are telepathic. They're playing with one another since they're 14.
"Galvin just got the ball, pick your man out and then … bang. They got three or four big points from play in-a-row and they were just back in it.
"But Galvin's skill and touch is just … he's a fine hurler. Conor Whelan tried to go to him a number of times but he's so sharp that he was throwing ball to Jack Browne or he was throwing it to (Jamie) Shanahan.
"He was still able to offload the ball.
"But the minute Galvin went in, they could hit him with the puckouts and he was spraying ball everywhere.
"We brought them out deeper and then the space opened up for (Peter) Duggan and Conlon.
"And they are dangerous."
Naturally, the form of John Conlon excites McNamara.
Firstly, he believes, Conlon works much better as a full-forward at inter-county level than he ever did as a wing-forward. And secondly, the role of full-forward in the Clare team is no longer a lone expedition.
"I can't believe it's taken us five years to get back to playing three players in the full-forward line," McNamara says.
Yet for all the heightened optimism now, McNamara admits he "travelled up in hope rather than expectation," to Croke Park last Saturday and will do so again to Thurles this coming Sunday.
"Yes, there's lads there with All-Ireland medals. Yes, there's lads there with All Stars.
"And maybe Cork have an Indian sign over us," he notes of Clare's two losses to the Rebels Munster, defeats that made last week's performance against Galway seem improbable.
"We went for 40 minutes and then we collapsed.
"Cork have an Indian sign over generations of Clare teams in Munster finals.
"I think it goes back to 1932 - we haven't beat them in a Munster final since then.
"But they beat Waterford well, they beat Tipp, they beat Limerick well at home.
"So the only team they lost to all year is Cork.
"And," McNamara adds, extending his rhetoric to a giddy conclusion, "If they beat Galway and if they then beat Limerick (in the All-Ireland final), the only team to beat them was Cork.
"It's a big 'if' though."