Thomas Clancy is 27 years old but hasn’t started an inter-county championship game for Cork since June 2016. He has only played in nine championship games since his debut in 2013. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with the Clonakilty man to talk about his comeback this season, leaving his injury problems in the past and the frustrations associated with Cork football
THOMAS Clancy wasn’t expecting the phone call. He was at home in Clonakilty when then Cork senior football selector Ciarán O’Sullivan rang him. It was an evening in late October 2018.
‘There’s a fitness test next week. Will you come up?’ O’Sullivan asked.
Clancy didn’t hesitate: ‘Of course. I’ll be there.’
The door was slightly opened.
Twelve months earlier, October 2017, it had been slammed shut: Clancy was dropped from the Cork senior football panel. New boss Ronan McCarthy was just in the door and was making his mark. Clancy’s services weren’t required. The same news was delivered to Colm O’Driscoll, Donal Óg Hodnett, Niall Coakley and Kevin Conlon.
‘What Ronan said at the time to me was that the door wasn’t going to be fully closed. He said he’d still keep an eye on me,’ Clancy recalls.
‘I felt that if I put the head down then I might get back in at some stage. But after the club championships last year, a couple of weeks went by and, to be honest, I probably felt that I wouldn’t be getting a call.’
Then his phone rang.
He went to the fitness test and wedged his foot in the door, again. He trained hard over the winter and survived the panel cut before the start of this year’s national league.
The 2018 championship had been disastrous. Cork were chastised by Kerry and ridiculed by Tyrone. New blood was needed. Old faces too, it seems. Anyone who could make a difference.
There’s an eight-hour time difference between Cork and San Francisco.
When Cork and Kerry squared up to each other in the 2018 Munster senior football final at sunny Páirc Uí Chaoimh on a Saturday evening in late June, it was just before noon in San Fran. That’s where Clancy was.
He watched the game in the house in Noe Valley where he was staying for the summer.
It was hard viewing. Kerry cantered to a 3-18 to 2-4 win. It was a very public spanking on live TV.
‘That was tough to watch. I know those lads, I know the effort that goes in and how frustrating it is when it doesn’t come together. No one wants to lose like that and against Kerry too,’ Clancy says.
A couple of weeks later Clancy sat down in front of the TV again on another Saturday morning for Cork’s All-Ireland Round 4 qualifier against Tyrone.
It was just as bad. Maybe even worse.
Tyrone won 3-20 to 0-13. Cork were abject.
Again, Clancy felt for his former team-mates. There was nothing he could do. He was in San Fran to play football for the summer. Young Irelanders/St Brendan’s made contact with him in February 2018 to see would he be interested in togging out with them for a few months. He’s a teacher at Kinsale Community School and the summer months are his own.
‘It was something that I wanted to do and when I had the chance, I took it,’ he says.
He left West Cork in early June and played football on the west coast until the end of August.
‘When I got the phone call and when I decided to go to America, I knew that would be it for Cork last year. I wasn’t going to be around if they did call me,’ Clancy says.
‘It was a great experience. I got to meet a load of new people.
‘You’d be very happy to be at home and playing inter-county but if you’re not, then it’s a good option to go to the States for the summer. It’s something that you wouldn’t regret either.
‘It was a nice mix of football, socialising and getting to see America.’
Training with Young Irelanders was on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Matches were played on Treasure Island on Sundays. Clancy, 26 years old at the time, had a ball.
‘We actually won the San Francisco senior championship for the first time in the club’s history. That was brilliant.’ Odhran Keane from Newcestown was also on that Young Irelanders team.
For Clancy, apart from missing the first game due to the tail end of a knee ligament injury, he got a summer of football under his belt. That was a relief. He has been dogged with injuries.
‘Once I started playing in San Fran, I was injury free. Then I came back to Clon and played away club games. We had two championship games – against Bishopstown and Carbery Rangers – and the season was over then,’ Clancy says.
‘I have always felt that if I’m fit and going well then I am good enough to play with Cork. The fact I’ve had a lot of injuries over the years and I haven’t played much championship football, it was important that I showed that I could go a year without being injured.’
Thomas Clancy is 27 and should be in the prime of his inter-county career. Instead, he hasn’t started a championship game since Cork lost to Donegal in a 2016 All-Ireland qualifier at Croke Park.
That was his first championship appearance since 2014. He started in the full-back line but kicked two points against Donegal. He also went off injured after 48 minutes.
Injuries have riddled his inter-county career. Clancy made his senior championship debut in 2013 and played in four games that season. The following year he started four championship games. In the four seasons since, he has started one championship game for Cork. He has only started seven senior inter-county championship matches ever. His inter-county career has been stop-start, with more stops than starts.
Clancy has had calf problems. In May 2015 he rolled his ankle and damaged ligaments playing for Clonakilty in the Cork SFC. He played through the pain but needed surgery that winter. In 2017 he suffered a stress fracture of his foot. He came back too soon, aggravated the injury and missed the championship. Another season over. His Cork career stagnated.
‘It was very frustrating. I’d play a lot of league and when it came to the summer, I’d be injured,’ he points out.
‘There was the ankle injury that cost me one summer. The bruised bone in my foot that kept me out another summer. It’s always been bad timing.
‘For a player to play most league games and then get injured before the championship is very frustrating.’
Clancy’s senior career has never kicked on. Too many injuries.
‘Everyone wants to play championship. You want to play summer football. Don’t get me wrong you enjoy the league as well but you prefer to play in the championship over the league every time.
‘I have played a lot of league matches every year since I got involved in 2013 and then injuries kept catching me.’
This season Clancy played in Cork’s final four league games. He was centre back against Meath and Tipperary and used as full back against Donegal and Armagh. On Saturday against Limerick he will start his first championship start since the summer of 2016.
Former Cork manager Brian Cuthbert is adamant that fans have not seen the best of Thomas Clancy.
The Clon man was on Cuthbert’s Cork minor team in 2010 that lost the All-Ireland MFC final to Tyrone. Cuthbert rates Clancy highly.
‘Thomas was a lynchpin of that minor team in 2010, at centre back,’ he recalls.
‘I remember the Munster minor final that year against Kerry in Killarney. He played that game with an absolute migraine and it was so bad that he had to be escorted home after the game. He got through the match and played exceptionally well. He is a tough competitor.’
In that final against Tyrone, Cuthbert played Clancy full back for the first time and put him on Ronan O’Neill. The Clon man quietened O’Neill and restricted him to one point from play in Cork’s 1-13 to 1-12 defeat.
But the highly-rated minor and U21 hasn’t fulfilled that potential. Cuthbert was Cork senior manager in 2014 and 2015. Clancy played all four championship games in 2014. He didn’t feature at all the next year before of injury.
‘He has been very unlucky,’ Cuthbert says.
‘When I was involved with the seniors we played him centre back, and full back on a number of occasions too. He’d have a run of games and unfortunately for him injury would strike. Just when he was nailing down a position he’d be dealt a blow and get injured. They weren’t short injuries either.’
Clancy has the ability to become a mainstay in the Cork defence. He’s a big unit with a physical presence who can play football. He’s played midfield and further forward for Clon footballers and been comfortable there.
‘He can play and he understands the game. He’s not an out and out defender, he is a good footballer,’ Cuthbert explains.
‘He always was and is a classy player. The injuries have knocked time off his career and hopefully he’ll get it back at the other end. We haven’t seen the best of him yet. Hopefully we will because there’s more to come from him.’
Clancy agrees. He’s never lacked in self belief. It’s the injuries that have derailed him.‘I have always had confidence in my own ability that I am good enough; it’s about getting the chance to show that. I’m glad I have the chance to get involved again,’ he says.
Frustrating is a word that crops up too often in this conversation with Clancy.
It’s how he describes his battle with injuries and missing out on championship summers. It’s the word he uses when reflecting on Cork’s football league campaign that ended with them being relegated to Division 3 for the first time in the county’s history. And it’s how he describes the inconsistency that has become synonymous with Cork footballers.
‘The league was disappointing. We weren’t playing with confidence. It was frustrating being relegated,’ Clancy says.
‘A positive was that towards the latter stages of the league we definitely improved – we got the win against Armagh and played well.
‘Against Donegal we played well for the three quarters but fell away then. The scoreboard didn’t reflect the game. We dominated a lot but we fell asleep for five, ten minutes and that cost us. (Donegal won 1-19 to 1-12)
‘It is frustrating when you play well in the first half and then poor in the second half. Or else you play one good game and then are bad in the next one. Of course we’re aware of it and we are trying to get that right. There is a lot of hard work being done.
‘We fully believe that if we can get one or two big wins we could have a big summer ahead of us.’
But Clancy understands why that’s not an opinion shared by too many supporters. Once bitten, twice bitten, thrice bitten …
There have been more bad days than good in recent years. It’s one of the reasons why there will be a small crowd too at Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday evening for the Munster SFC semi-final against Limerick.
‘It’s been very frustrating for players, it’s frustrating for supporters and it’s frustrating for the management team. When people see us getting relegated to Division 3 I don’t think anyone is giving us a hope,’ he admits.
‘As a group of players we know that if we click on the day then we can compete with any good team. It’s about getting confidence up and carrying that through to the pitch.
‘In the past few years the Cork footballers have got a few bad beatings in big games. But all it takes is one big win in the summer and it can turn the season around.’
Beating Limerick wouldn’t class as a big win. It’s a banana skin that Cork are still expected to negotiate. Truthfully, Clancy had expected Tipperary to beat Limerick in the last round – and that surprise win has served as a warning ahead of Saturday night.
‘You would have expected Tipp to come through. That’s a good Tipp football team, we only beat them in the league by a point so for Limerick to go to Thurles and beat them by seven points is a big statement. We won’t be taking anything for granted,’ he says, pointing to Cork’s narrow escape (1-12 to 1-11) against Waterford two years ago.
‘We did well to get over the line down in Walsh Park. Those first-round games are really tight. There are no real easy games any more.’
Beat Limerick and the challenge then is likely to be Kerry in a Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. That’s for another day. First, it’s about Saturday and Clancy’s first championship appearance since 2016. He is named at centre back for the game.
Maybe Cuthbert is right. Maybe luck will glance favourably in Clancy’s direction now and he’ll enjoy an extended run free of injuries. That’s what both player and county need.