Humble, quietly confident and courageous in character, Colm Collins and Clare footballers will approach this afternoon's pivotal match with their usual consistency.

Last weekend's win over Kildare in the Allianz Football League Division 2 South got people talking again. Well, more than talking. There has been plenty of excitement and plaudits coming the Banner's way now that the prospect of Division 1 football became a reality once more.

But Collins hasn’t got to this stage in his managerial career by listening to idle chatter.

For him, the practicalities of the weekend are all that matter. Right now, his side are neither sure of a promotion play-off nor safe from relegation. That's the bottom line. A clap on the back has never been so close to a kick in the ass.

A defeat to Cork today and a win for Kildare in Laois could yet see Clare miss out on a promotion play-off place on score difference.

On that difference front, Clare remain well placed, with a tally of +10.

Still, they'll need at least a point against Cork to ensure that shot at Division 1 status. It’s a big game, signified by the fact that TG4 are there to screen it live.

"And you know what?" says former Clare minor, under-21 and junior manager, Joe Garry. "Division 1 football would put the tin hat on what Colm and these lads have managed over the past eight years. But even if we were to get into a relegation struggle and fell to Division 3, that wouldn’t affect the legacy Colm built one bit. That's a fact.

"His work so far has been that good, just rock solid. From a footballing perspective, no matter what happens this weekend, he has 100% support from the football people in this county."

This weekend’s hyperbole aside, the organisation and consistency which are hallmarks of the Collins tenure, have stood the county in great stead regardless of how results go tomorrow.

In the eight years that Collins has been in charge of the Clare footballers, they have diligently and subtly developed into one of the most respected teams in the country.

"Pure consistency in the way they approach games," says another inter-county manager. "No fuss about them, no slip even when class players have moved on or retired, and the pure organisation that they have when you go to play them. That’s what has kept them at this level for so long."

Days after they lost to Tipperary in the 2020 Munster Championship (above), bringing an end to Collin’s seventh season in charge, the Clare players came out publicly looking for Colins to stay on. In other counties, often in just half that time, players would be looking for their manager to move on. It was the opposite with this group.

"The people who matter know what he has done," says Garry, who will be analysing today's game for Clare FM.

"He knows the county inside out, from his own native club to Cratloe. As a club manager with Cratloe he knows the entire scene. He gets on well with people, has a good relationship with the county board and he is positive about developing players."

It’s little wonder. In each season of his tenure, bar 2015, Clare have made tangible progress. Collins was the man who took the county out of Division 4 for the first time in over a decade.

After that they landed a Division 3 title and reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2016.

They have retained their Division 2 status for four years on the trot and, unsurprisingly, now stand close to promotion to Division 1.

What is really impressive is that they have kept the show on the road even though gifted players such as Gordon Kelly and Gary Brennan have retired.

This year, the likes of other experienced players such David Tubridy and Eoin Cleary have taken on even more responsibility.

And whereas the Clare football team of the 1990s made a massive impact with a Munster senior title and some glamorous and dramatic showings, Collins’ outfit have more so repeatedly made incremental progress, etching out results away from home in front of only a handful of Clare supporters.

Beating Kildare in Newbridge for the first time – like they did last Sunday – was another milestone.

Last year, in their final league game against Armagh, they were again looking at Division 1 football only for an Armagh team (that has now developed into contenders for the 2021 Ulster title) to hit a flurry of late points and deny them top-flight football.

That loss to Armagh – and a subsequent poor show against Tipp in the championship – opened a theory that the team had missed the boat.

Instead, Collins’ standing, his knowledge of the game, development of young players such as Joe McGinn and Daniel Walsh (below), and his astute game management have solidified the side.

"He puts football first," Garry says. "The players know that once they are organised they can have a crack at attacking football too. It’s not all-out crazy attack stuff but the players know they can express themselves.

"And he has changed things up too. They’ve had different coaches in his time, including the likes of Paudie Kissane, Mick Bohan, Alan Flynn, Brian Carson and Gerry McGowan and each coach has brought their own style."

He is the current longest serving manager with the same county.

And that’s because people trust him and respond to him.

For instance, after hitting a wonder point two weeks ago against Laois, Eoin Cleary told the media: "Colm encourages us — if we’re feeling confident and if we feel it’s a good shooting position, we take the shot. The fact that he gives us the encouragement to take those shots gives us the opportunity to have a go if the option is on, so I decided to go for it and lucky enough it went over".

The trust is there because Collins’ teams constantly deliver performances and results.

Since then, they have maintained their status as a Division 2 team. To put that in perspective the likes of Armagh, Cork and Down all dropped down at various stages.

When the discussion arises over who has been the best manager in inter-county GAA over the past decade or so, the usual names emerge. Jim Gavin with six All-Ireland titles and five of those on the trot. Jim McGuinness for reinventing the wheel. John Kiely for his sensational management of Limerick.

But the evidence built up by Collins is impressive too. He doesn’t go on about it, indeed the most you may get out of him is a smile of deflection as he praises his players, but, in this guy, we have the real unsung star of modern-day inter-county management.

Slim resources when you compare them to other sides, drawing from a smaller pool and reliant on footballing strongholds. Turning a bottom-tier side into serial winners and keeping them in the top 10 or 12 in the country for so many seasons. It’s been a remarkable innings.

That won't change no matter what happens this weekend.

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