Clare complete fairytale triumph

 

Clare 0-15 Kilkenny 0-14:A FAIRYTALE of the west. Clare won their first ever All-Ireland under-21 title yesterday in a style which almost defied description. Having been the victims of larceny in 2008, they swashbuckled through this season making every game they played an unlikely epic. Yesterday’s breathtaking finish was greeted by scenes of delirium seldom seen at Croke Park, even for a senior win.

What did this wonderful game signify? The end of an empire? Kilkenny, who lost the preceding camogie final, have been beaten in the All-Ireland intermediate, minor and under-21 finals. Having completed the four-in-a row the stripey men and women must be feeling the rest of the hurling world breathing down their necks.

This game, as much as last week’s senior thriller, was what hurling needed and in terms of the promise which Clare’s win holds out for the future, perhaps it was of more significance.

Clare have produced an outstandingly attractive side and even in a suffocating first half it was easy to see what the fuss is about. A superb half-back line and an ability to garner primary possession were matched by a sweet speed of striking and thought around the pitch.

When the second half lurched toward endgame, Kilkenny exerted the familiar stranglehold on proceedings. Mark Kelly, who had opened Kilkenny’s scoring, closed their account with three minutes to go when he fired over the crossbar from the middle of the field. One point was a slender lead but Kilkenny are Kilkenny.

From the puck out though Clare won a free well in their own half. Colin Ryan, sublime all day from the dead ball, lifted and struck it dead between the posts. Level. From there it came down to will, hunger, desperation and guts.

Cormac O’Donovan, one of the young Clonlara contingent backboning this team, got possession in a thicket of black and amber. He made room for a speculative shot which drew a thousand curses from his county men who were sure it would go wide. The ball dropped over the crossbar and Clare were 90 seconds from glory.

They held out and the scenes which followed were reminiscent of the magical summer of 1995.

The first half offered hints of the tension to follow. Clare got to half-time two points ahead and were just about value for their lead although their main avenue for scores was effectively closed.

Doubts about the fitness of Darach Honan, the sensation of this year’s championship, had cast a pall over Clare’s anticipation and for the first half there were just fleeting glimpses of his potential.

On 21 minutes he stretched for a ball, turned and burst with speed through three Kilkenny defenders. He appeared to be held but managed to get away a smart low shot which brought a fine save from Colin McGrath. and earned a 65 which Colin Ryan cashed in.

In injury time in the half, Conor Tierney burst down the right wing and fed Honan who was duly poleaxed. Ryan attempted to extract a goal from the 21-yard free but saw it deflected over the bar to leave Clare 0-8 to 0-6 up at the break. After that we saw little of Honan, but Clare found ways to survive.

Kilkenny defence’s robust style drew punishment throughout. The free count for the first half was 10 to one for Clare and Colin Ryan went into the break with six points from frees and one from a 65.

In the second half Kilkenny, attacking but prodigal to the extent of 13 wides over the hour, looked as if they would slowly devour Clare, whose excellent defence showed a few fissures.

In the 47th minute Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan burst through the middle and rasped a stinging shot at goal. Donal Touhy made a wonderful save for the loss of a point. The difference between being three points down and just a point down at that stage was critical to the momentum of the game.

The closing stages were illuminated by the quality of Clare’s scores. Another huge free from Ryan, two astonishing points by centre forward John Conlon and finally O’Donovan’s masterpiece.

The delirium and joy which followed required good old Plan B. What plans will the Clare County Board have for this team? They can be great or they can be the new Limerick.

CLARE: D Touhy; E Glynn, C Dillon, C O’Doherty; D O’ Donovan, N O’ Connell, J Gunning; E Barrett, C O’Donovan (0-2); C Morey (0-1), J Conlon (0-3), S Collins; C Tierney, D Honan, C Ryan (0-9) (eight frees, one 65). Subs: C McGrath for Tierney (43 mins), P O’Connor for Morley (49 mins), E Hayes for Gunning (52 mins).

KILKENNY: C McGrath; P Murphy, P Nolan, C Fogarty; L Ryan, D Langton, M Walsh; M Kelly (0-3), L Ryan; C Fennelly (0-2), M Bergin, J Mulhall (0-2); R Hogan (0-5, one free), JJ Farrell, J Nolan (0-2). Subs: N Cleere for Bergin 46 mins.

Referee: C McAllister (Cork)