Clare bask in glory of perfect finale to a glorious summer
O’Donnell the hat-trick hero for brilliant Banner but brave Cork play their full part too in an unforgettable All-Ireland hurling final
Monday morning and Clare are the All-Ireland hurling champions and the world is still spinning on its axis. Just about.
The GAA was adventurous enough to scupper protocol and tradition and was rewarded with one of the most beautiful finales not just in the long history of the association but of sport in general. It was perfection.
Everything about the closing act of a fabulous hurling summer felt strange: a Saturday All-Ireland final replay on a warm autumn evening, the city centre buzzing and a game which began in daylight and finished under lights. It was dreamlike and the watching world was dazzled long before the bulbs lit up the stadium.
Almost from the throw-in, the hurlers from Clare and Cork mixed it with clean, attacking intent and phenomenal speed, bravery and imagination.
It became clear that the replay would surpass the first day out. Seventy minutes later, it was hard to imagine that there had ever been a better All-Ireland hurling final.
Clare and Cork had played the old game in a way that had not been seen before.
Even the scoreline had a burnished look: 5-16 to 3-16. Central to Clare’s five goals was Shane O’Donnell, the 19-year- old Eire Óg flier who was told by Davy Fitzgerald that he was starting just two hours before the throw in.
“He was nearly getting sick on the way in on the bus,” quipped Tony Kelly afterwards.
But on the field, O’Donnell was an incandescent figure as dusk fell across the city. The smoothness with which he finished his three first-half goals was one thing but the point he scored in the 54th minute when Cork, heroic in the second half, surged with five scores in a row, was arguably his most important strike of the game.
It steadied the young Clare team as they cleared their heads for the final win-or-bust shoot-out of the summer.
Twice in the last 15 minutes of action, Cork would breach the Clare net and twice the Banner would reply. When Stephen Moylan whipped in Cork’s third goal after 71 minutes, just a goal stood between them and the prospect of a third match, of yet another draw, flitted through the minds.
By that stage, those privileged enough to be in the stadium would have been surprised by nothing. But it was Clare’s day. With 66 minutes gone, Fitzgerald had withdrawn O’Donnell for the man he had replaced, Darach Honan.
When O’Donnell took off his helmet, most of Ireland got a look at him for the first time. Five minutes later, Honan took a ball on the wing.
Out of all of this bunch, it was Honan’s name that was first whispered as holding the future of Clare hurling. He took off and half-soloed, half worried the ball past the Cork defence and into the goal. It trickled into the net. Fitzgerald sank to his knees. The roar in Croke Park was of that primal, deafening kind that can only come from a county that seldom sees All-Ireland splendour. 1914. 1995. 1997. And now 2013; winners of the finest hurling summer in living memory.
Jimmy Barry Murphy watched it all calmly. For a man associated with so many of Cork’s winning Septembers in hurling and football, he is a class apart in knowing how to lose graciously.
He saw his team shaken by another unstoppable opening argument from the Claremen and they were eight points adrift after 26 minutes.
But Cork found a way, from Anthony Nash’s Howitzer free into a sardine-tin goalmouth crowded with Clare men to Patrick Cronin’s industry to Stephen McDonnell’s terrific corner-back display.
They stayed Cork – positive, innovative and alive to the half chance – and made the impossible look likely.
“Both days really we had been playing catch up from the word go,” JBM said. “Difficult thing to do, I think. You have to get everything right to get back into a game.
“We did a lot of things right but if you don’t take everything that comes your way . . .it has to be perfect then at that stage. And eventually our luck ran out. And we were beaten by just a much better team on the day. I think on both days- I’ve got to acknowledge it - that they deserved it.”
It is odd to think that JBM took instruction from Christy Ring when Croke Park was a hooded place with match-box dressing rooms. Here he was yesterday, still a Cork folk hero, presiding over a game that would surely have thrilled the Cloyne genius.
Tomorrow has never looked better for hurling.
Clare, suddenly, seem to have it all, from born leaders like John Conlon and Brendan Bugler – a source of white fury in the second half – to young wizards like Conor McGrath and Kelly and the unflappable Colin Ryan.
“I love to see them go out and expressing themselves,” Fitzgerald said on Saturday night, his pale eyes watery with the emotion of the evening. “They’d be out on the field doing things and I’d be watching them thinkin’ . . .Jesus.”
He shrugged then when asked if Clare could win more.
“This crowd can do whatever they want.”
It certainly seems that way. Nightfall drew the curtains on a perfect hurling year. The best team won, the most gallant finished runners-up and a jolt of pride travelled across Ireland. What can you say? The kids are alright.