The hurler with the boyband looks, Shane O’Donnell was Clare’s hero against Cork
Davy Fitzgerald only told him he was playing two hours before the game to spare his nerves
As soon as you see Shane O’Donnell taking off his helmet, you only hope Louis Walsh isn’t passing a television. Just gone 19, his boyband credentials are so watertight that it’s a wonder the Clare bench didn’t have a tall stool for him to rise from all summer.
He walks through every door fringe first, with cheekbones high and a smile to make teenage girls bite on their necklaces. We don’t know if he can sing yet but then when has that ever mattered?
We know he can hurl though. His 3-3 in this All Ireland final replay came from just nine touches of the ball. O’Donnell is a second year student of genetics in UCC but his display on Saturday night was a lesson in economy.
Of course, he wasn’t even supposed to be playing. His last start for Clare was in the qualifier against Wexford in mid-July, the night they needed extra-time to get past Liam Dunne’s side and after which they were airily dismissed as a project for the long finger.
Ever since, he’d been a fitful presence, never threatening Darach Honan’s place at the prow of the Clare attack and often seeing Cathal McInerney sent into the fray ahead of him when Davy Fitz looked to freshen things up. But shortly before three o’clock on Saturday as they were finishing up their pre-match meal, the manager pulled him to one side.
“I was ringing him over the last couple of days,” said Fitzgerald, “and saying, ‘You’re probably going to come on.’ I just wanted to keep it from him. Now, I’d say probably everybody else in the county knew but he didn’t.”
Fitzgerald’s reasoning was simple. O’Donnell had been on fire in training since the drawn game and carried a goal threat that had been absent from Clare’s armoury all summer.
But his tendency to suffer attacks of the jitters called for him knowing as close to the game as possible. “I was talking to him getting off the bus,” laughed Tony Kelly. “Sure he was nearly getting sick!
“Well that’s not true,” said O’Donnell. “But I do get very nervous before matches. In hindsight it made it easier because I slept great last night. I woke up this morning going, ‘I can’t wait for my chance to get on’. And then I was told close enough to the game so I wasn’t too nervous. I didn’t have time to get tight about it. I was just excited to get out. So yeah, it worked brilliantly.”
And what were the instructions?
“He just said, ‘Do what you always do.’ And that’s to go for goals. Sometimes it doesn’t work out but today they did. I’m not good at scoring points so I had already decided that I was going to go for a goal any chance I had. I kind of have it my head that I’ll go for goal if I can and sure if I get taken down, the free-taker will have his chance to score. Every score on the board is one for Clare.”
His first half was the stuff of song and poem. Already with 3-2 to his name for his limited appearances in the championship so far, he had another 3-1 on the board inside the opening 19 minutes. It made him the first man to score an All Ireland final hat-trick inside a single half since Donie Nealon in 1964.
And yet, Shane O’Neill will find little enough in the tape for which to reproach himself. O’Donnell got out in front to grab the first ball and whip a point in the second minute but it was the last 50-50 that the Clare man won for close on half an hour.
The goals were a pickpocket’s work. Twice O’Neill was betrayed by the porosity of the defence in front of him and could do little more than split the difference between the onrushing man and O’Donnell peeling away to his left.
Pat Donnellan found him for the first, Conor McGrath laid off the second. “Both of them were put on a plate for me. I had to do nothing except take two steps with the ball and put it in the far corner.”
In general play, O’Neill probably had his measure. Three times in that opening spell, the Cork full-back bested him as they duelled for ball. While the rest of the Cork defence looked nervous and hesitant, O’Neill took responsibility and invariably came out with possession.
Critically though, it led him to chase one ball too many and when he went to sweep in behind William Egan on 19 minutes he left a gaping hole in front of Anthony Nash. O’Donnell was onto the loose ball in a trice and his improvised bat down past the Cork goalkeeper was his best finish of the day.
“If I had a dream last night that I was going to score 3-3, I’d have woken up saying, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I’d have been happy with one, like. But it really is the stuff of dreams, from back when you were six and you pick up a hurley.
“It’s unbelievable. You can’t describe it. You literally dream of that from when you’re a kid. And going up to the Hill after scoring a goal, there’s always a delay between when it hits the net and when they roar. It’s absolutely amazing.”
It might be stretching matters to say his most crucial score came in the second half but Clare were creeping close to desperation by the time it came in the 54th minute. They had scored just one point in 26 minutes and had seen their eight-point lead wiped out.
Davy was coursing the referee, Colin Ryan had seen a free come back off the post, Colm Galvin had spilled a wide and dropped a shot into Nash’s chest. Shane O’Neill hadn’t been beaten to a single ball since half-time. The sides were level and the next score was going to be important.
Out came O’Donnell to snatch up a diagonal ball from Tony Kelly. Though O’Neill stuck to him, he managed to brush the Cork full-back off and cause him to lose his footing. Though space had now opened up in front of him, he took his point to put Clare ahead.
“I hadn’t got much of the ball for a while and the ball broke to me. I was actually thinking of going for a goal but because I hadn’t been in the game much for a while I said I’d tap it over the bar and keep the scoreboard ticking over.”
When he stuck his final score five minutes from the end, Fitzgerald decided that a five-point lead was enough latitude and called him ashore. No Clare supporter sat as he trotted off, a standing ovation that horseshoed the stadium and drowned him in adoration.
The One Direction lads wouldn’t know the half of it.