‘Being honest in years gone by we were labelled chokers by the Clare public’

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AMONGST THE ROW of football communities that hug the west coast of Clare, there have been winter days in the sun.

Sunday expeditions when an entire parish is emptied in the pursuit of Munster senior football glory.

Cooraclare lost the maiden final in 1964 and then a succession of clubs next to the Atlantic have had their turn.

Start with Kilrush Shamrocks, who reached three finals between 1979 and 1981. Move on the N67 to Kilkee and St Senan’s featured in four deciders, their most recent in 2005. Up the road is Doonbeg with five final appearances in their locker and the seismic breakthrough for Clare football when they won in 1998.

Next door is Kilmurry-Ibrickane, serial figures at this level and twice crowned Munster kingpins.

In Miltown Malbay they have watched their neighbours make names for themselves in the run to Christmas. Tomorrow in the Gaelic Grounds, the St Joseph’s club get to make their statement. A first outing in a Munster senior club football decider.

“It’s an unreal feeling,” says Eoin Cleary, the Clare forward and a marquee name for the club.

“In years gone boy we’d be playing relegation play-offs or filling league fixtures at this stage of the year. It’s surreal to be playing a Munster final. Just a great occasion for the club and the community.”

Cleary got an insight into those feats. His cousin Enda Coughlan, a defensive anchor on Clare teams for many years, was on the Kilmurry-Ibrickane side that triumphed in the 2004 Munster final. He was captain in 2009 when they repeated the trick against Kerry’s Kerins O’Rahilly’s.

Enda Coughlan lifts the cup in 2009 after Kilmurry-Ibrickane’s victory.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

“Of course I was delighted for them but at the same time you want to see your own have that kind of success. What they achieved in that period was unreal really, they put their name on the map.

“It’s something we’ve been looking to do, maybe have the bragging rights in the house at some stage. You’d be so envious of them, doing their club and county proud. 

“I suppose Miltown is synonymous for music and Willie Clancy week. It’s time it was synonymous with football and that’s what we’re looking to do.”

They’ve had to work to try to achieve that. For 24-year-old Cleary, this is his sixth season lining out for the club’s flagship team. He started out in 2013 at a time of uncertainty after they had tumbled down from the senior ranks. The hangover from relegation hung over them as they embarked on the intermediate road five years ago in Clare.

“I was very lucky in a way as managers can be a bit cautious to introduce players to a senior club team. The year I came in, myself, Conor (his twin brother) and a few more guys were tried. Thankfully we got a few results.

“If we were senior then for another few years, we mightn’t have got that chance because lads would be sticking with the tried and trusted and say this is working for us.

“When we got relegated, in fairness to David O’Brien he came in and gave young lads a chance. Thankfully I think we repaid him.”

They rebounded and collected an intermediate county that year in Clare. Back up in the senior ranks for 2014. Then the Jack Daly Cup came back to Miltown Malbay after a 25-year wait in 2015, Eoin shooting 0-4 in a success over Cooraclare.

“Until you came back to Miltown itself that night of the county final, you then realised what a big deal it was to people. When you saw how much it meant to your family and friends, you just wanted to keep winning them. As we found out in years gone by, it’s not as easy you think. They’re hard earned.”

Cleary is the hub of the Miltown Malbay attack and a leading light in county colours. This summer his scoring tallies in championship for Clare amounted to 0-5 against Kerry, 0-6 against Offaly and 0-3 against Armagh.

His attacking showing in that qualifier win on a baking hot day in Tullamore moved Offaly interim manager Paul Rouse to locate him afterwards and deliver praise.

Eoin Cleary in action against Kerry’s Jack Barry in this year’s Munster semi-final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Yet it is a local feat that he relishes most, when his club picked up their second crown in four years last month. That appreciation was first rooted in what went on since 2015.

The following year they lost a madcap semi-final, plundering four early goals and streaking 11 points clear after 17 minutes but ultimately losing out after extra-time to Cratloe. Last year they lost a semi-final to Clondegad by six.

Those reversals grated. They redressed that pattern in 2018, beating both of their previous conquerors en route to the title.

“I suppose the talk in Clare was that we won a soft championship and a few of the bigger names weren’t in the picture that year,” outlines Cleary.

“We wanted to win a second one just to show a good team can win one but an even better team can win two. It was a lot more satisfactory than the win in 2015.

“I think all the players felt that because in 2015 we weren’t expected to win the championship, we caught teams cold but this time we were kind of in top three or four teams and we delivered.

“Being honest in years gone by we were labelled chokers by the Clare public for our performances in the past few semi-finals. I felt it was kind of nice to put that to bed this year.”

He was also able to share this recent success with those close to him. His twin brother Conor, the bedrock at number six for the Clare hurlers this summer, missed the 2015 win after fracturing his ankle in a club hurling game with Kilmaley. This time he was in the thick of the action at midfield.

Conor Cleary and Joe Canning in opposition in this year’s All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final replay.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I think I said it after the game that it meant way more to me than 2015. The day is all about family and friends.

“Having him on the pitch and even Darragh McDonagh who is one of my best friends, so it was a more special feeling to share the victory and the final whistle. It was a lot more satisfaction for everyone but for my family it was a sweet one.”

They haven’t slowed down since. Previous Munster forays saw Miltown Malbay reach an intermediate final in 2013 where they lost to Cork’s Clyda Rovers and they got taught a lesson as Clonmel Commercials took them down in a senior semi-final in 2015.

They were steeled a fortnight ago for the challenge of The Nire, a team sprinkled with big hurling names and seasoned Munster campaigners. The trip to the Fraher Field was a rewarding one.

And that has propelled them toward tomorrow’s Munster final. They face Kerry heavyweights Dr Crokes, as a club where Kingdom influences have helped direct them over the years.

Before he became renowned for his inter-county expertise, Donie Buckley was setting out on the coaching path and guided St Joseph’s to Clare glory in 1990. Currently they Dingle native David Geaney, a former Kerry senior, aiding them.

Former Kerry footballer David Geaney.

Source: Cathal Noonan

“David Geaney has been a huge difference,” says Cleary.

“It’s great to work with someone like him because I felt he brought my own game on for little things like movement, shot selection and it was great to get an insight from a guy who’s played at the top level and will eventually coach at the top level the way he’s going.

“With Donie in the 90s, there has been a huge Kerry influence in our club and long may it continue if they can bring that type of success to the club.”

Dr Crokes, with six final outings and four titles behind them since 2010, are a powerful Munster force but it is a game that carries plenty anticipation in Miltown Malbay.

Colm Cooper and Eoin Brosnan celebrating Dr Crokes county final win in Tralee.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We know they’re formidable opposition and we know what we’re up against. No one’s going to give us a chance but we’re looking forward to the occasion. I think we’re working well as a unit. You can take advice from the older lads.

“Gordon (Kelly) is a huge leader in the team as captain. You’ve the two Curtin brothers and Graham Kelly driving it as well. We feel if we put in a performance, we can go a long way in this game and we’d like to see where that’ll bring us.

“Listen it’ll be a great occasion for everyone to test yourselves against probably the best club side over the last 10 years in Munster.”

For their pocket of West Clare, tomorrow is their chance to step into the spotlight and shine.

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