Outstanding champions Clare crown a remarkable championship in fitting style
Young Banner men proved their quality when brave Cork asked the big questions
Clare’s Conor McGrath scores his side’s fourth goal at a critical juncture in Saturday’s outstanding All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Not since 1995 and Clare’s great rising have we had a summer or a championship like this one. And to top off this great hurling season Cork and Clare go and treat us all to an unforgettable All-Ireland final replay as well.
It makes you sad that it’s all over. Will we ever see such a string of such thrilling matches again?
It’s fitting that Clare are the last men standing because they are the purest of hurlers. I cannot praise them highly enough except to say these boys grew into men before our very eyes.
It takes a special group to evolve under the full glare of the championship.
Again, just like 1995 when Clare climbed from underneath the Biddy Early curse to claim the Liam McCarthy cup, the sun shone on never-to-be-forgotten days in Nowlan Park, Thurles, Portlaoise and the Gaelic Grounds.
But the best was saved for Croke Park and again the sun refused to abandon us on Saturday evening.
Clare simply blossomed in this replay by emphatically answering the one remaining question that so many of us held over their heads. Could they score goals? They gave us five. And still they were under pressure to win the game. This was a fantastic occasion and it was a privilege to be present.
Clare were simply brilliant and amidst it all Davy Fitzgerald’s tactical moves outwitted Cork yet again. The Shane O’Donnell selection was a masterstroke. Three goals and three points from a 19-year-old in a team that wasn’t scoring goals.
I wouldn’t have taken him off but just as it seemed his replacement by Davy could backfire (mere seconds after he had shrugged off Shane O’Neill to land a third point) Darach Honan arrived and got the fifth goal.
Even a tactical call that seemed at the time to be questionable proved a great decision by Davy.
The game itself, from the off, was played at an unbelievable pace, the scoring phenomenal. Cork were under all sorts of pressure in the early exchanges. They looked off the pace, William Egan was withdrawn, and it looked like Clare would bury them before half-time.
The Anthony Nash scene – that was worth being there on Saturday all on its own. The drama was like something from a gunslinger movie.
I wondered why all those new goalkeepers hurleys were in the net beforehand. Why would Patrick Kelly need all them? It seemed strange. But it was the plan to counteract the bullets of Cork’s goalkeeper.
Sure enough, when Nash came up after 15 minutes to strike that free, with Cork already six point adrift, not only was he met by a Clare wall but each man had the bigger hurley in their hand.
Nash buried the goal with an unstoppable strike but I think it was another good idea by Davy. He had to do something. The sheer volume of bodies increased the chances of a block.
Despite Clare storming into such a position of dominance it did seem like Cork were capable of winning it midway through the second half.
Remember Clare didn’t score for 17 minutes. They were in real trouble. It was Patrick Horgan’s levelling of the match in the 53rd minute that ended their malaise.
What saved them in those 17 scoreless minutes was David McInerney. You could compare him to another great Clare full back but he deserves to be mentioned all on his own after this herculean performance.
McInerney sustained Clare as Cork threw everything at them. Three interventions alone denied certain Cork scores. Of course it was O’Donnell who profited from a fabulous Kelly ball to put them back in front. Immediately after that Conor Lehane went straight through and drove the ball wide.
It was in this short period that the match was won. That was when Clare seemed to make the collective decision not to lose this final. No matter what.
Colin Ryan pulled them further away with his sixth free and while the excellent Séamus Harnedy drew Cork level once again, I felt it was just a breath of oxygen for Cork. Clare were not going to ease off again.
That’s what really capped off this greatest of All-Ireland hurling championships. Clare saved their best until it mattered the most.
With the excellent Conor McGrath’s goal they drove the final nails into Cork coffin that they weren’t able to in the two games up to then. Cork, to their credit, lived up to their heritage as a hurling powerhouse, being like Rasputin in the manner they refused to die.
Although clearly outgunned they got extremely close to this All-Ireland title.
They only led for about a minute and a half over the two matches.
And so we’re left with outstanding young All-Ireland champions in the best hurling season in my memory. The pity is it’s all over.