Raising the banner
The best summer of hurling in decades comes to a close in suitably epic, unreal style
In the end, the summer of magical hurling didn’t get the big send-off it deserved – it got two of them. Between the original fiery final a few weeks ago and last Saturday’s thunderous finale, Clare and Cork provided the alreadly engrossing narrative with more twists, more turns and more tumbles. Forget Breaking Bad, this was real drama, a season which already had absolutely everything saw its highlights’ reel rerun and redrawn over 140 pulsating minutes. It felt like a dream, though you’d want to have some imagination to come up with these back-to-back games.
If the first match was about two teams not giving up and an out-of-position back Domhnall O’Donovan giving us another day out by firing over a last gasp rasper of a point, the second match gave us two teams who just didn’t want to leave the stage and a teenage hero called Shane O’Donnell shooting out the Croke Park lights.
The Saturday night fever on this occasion is not all about O’Donnell (as Galway should begin to realise, you don’t win championships with just one decent player), but you can understand why it could be. It’s a performance to accentuate the script. Three goals and three points in an All-Ireland final is the wow factor in anyone’s book. Some people knew it was coming – here’s Nicky English’s prescient pre-match take on O’Donnell and he was a name mentioned in the despatches many times already this year by wise observers – but the world always sits up and takes notice of an introduction like that.
The Ennis kid probably didn’t need any help to visualise what he had to do when the sliothar came his way in Croker. He’d probably played games like this a thousand times and more in his back garden, never imagining for a moment that it would all come to pass on an occasion like this. Now, there’s a twist which Hollywood scriptwriters would dismiss as too fanciful, too unreal, to quote the word of the season.
All credit to Davy in the end, then. The most caricatured manager in the game took a bunch of promising kids and moulded them into winners. Of course, there’s more than Fitz who deserves the credit – Patrick Donnellan’s capitain’s speech listed more backroom names than you’d find at the end of the average blockbuster – but he’s the one who’s out front acting as a lightning rod for all the slings and arrows coming their way. He’s also the one who makes the final shouts and calls and has to take it all when it goes wrong. This summer, though, the traffic went in the other direction by and large so Davy Fitz won the battles and the war. This summer’s smartest smart boy.
On the field, his Clare team deserve all the plaudits. Here was a team who matured and grew and developed and improved game on game. They played every shade of hurling in the book this summer and added some new paragraphs and pages while they were at it. The team who fell at Cork’s feet at the start of the summer were reborn by the time autumn rolled around and those Rebels stood on the other side of the pitch again. It was a pleasure to watch them in action, be it fearlessly firing over radar-guided point after point against Limerick in the semi-final or digging their way back in the game in the first final when Cork appeared to have nicked it and a lesser team would have sunk to their knees.
By playing stylishly, purely and bravely with chutzpah and guile, these Clare lads put an indelible mark on the game. Hurling is capable of going through mighty, seismic changes in the space of a few matches and this was a time for another of those shifts. Out with the physical intensity of recent years and in with a sleeker, swifter style. Just as with Kilkenny from 2007 on, everyone will now jostle and tussle to come up to that bannermark in the years to come and the next revolution will happen when someone comes up with another successful gameplan. Going on what we saw at the weekend and earlier in the month at the under-21 final, Clare will be there for some time to come.
So who might be joining them or even usurping them? Let’s start in Munster, which already has all the makings of a cracker championship next summer. Cork, for a start, held on for dear life against a team who were better than them in every quarter, but they held on. Many believe Cork got to this All-Ireland a year or so ahead of schedule, yet so too probably did Clare and that’s what makes what’s to come all the more intriguing.
It takes a lot to build a run like Kilkenny did – including, it has to be said, some weak opposition, which Kilkenny faced in finals against Limerick and Waterford – and it will be the height of box office to see who will take the game to Clare next year to prevent that happening. Will Cork continue and come back roaring in ’14? Will Tipperary start progressing at any stage soon rather than regressing? Can Limerick kick on without John Allen at the helm or will this year mark the height of their abilities and ambitions? What about Waterford?
Then, there’s the Kilkenny question. Yeah, there’s always a Kilkenny question. They were the punchdrunk heavyweight boyos this year, staying on their feet every time you expected them to topple over until Cork finished what Dublin had begun. As Brian Cody is back for another year (at least), will he be ruthless in implementing the changes which have to come to make Kilkenny fit for purpose again? And, more pertinently, is the stuff of these changes at his disposal? Is there more to the Kilkenny bench than Walter Walsh? They’re the 64 million dollar questions for the men and women in black and amber as the nights grow longer.
It’s hugely encouraging that Dublin stalwarts are disappointed with their lot. In years gone by, they’d have been delighted with the Leinster win, but Anthony Daly has pushed this lot to dream harder and try harder. They had the beating of Cork in the semi-final, but they didn’t get there in the end. That’s something to pin on the dressingroom wall in 2014 if they maintain a run. However, what might have been is no remedy for what should have been and that’s the gap which Dublin have to close in 2014.
But the great thing about hurling – and the reason why all that talk about “the greatest team of all time” is just sheer barstool cant – is that nothing stays the same forever. Teams come and teams go, players come and players go, managers come and managers go. The game goes on because there is always another day, always another feast to anticipate, always another twist to the tale. It will start again with the league in the winter and the slow, steady, reassuring preamble to the main event. We’ll remember 2013 fondly – especially in Co Clare – but the thoughts of what’s to come in 2014 and beyond provide the real relish.