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Nicky English: Rebooted Clare the only team bouncing out of the weekend’s dead zone

Brian Lohan has revived the Banner men’s prospects, but Cork’s genie looks to be back in the bottle

Clare's Shane O’Donnell finds the back of the net in the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final against Wexford at Semple Stadium on Saturday. The Banner men emerged winners and kept their championship hopes alive. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Four teams arrived in Thurles on Saturday but only one is going to Croke Park feeling buoyant. Let’s give credit to Brian Lohan for managing Clare out of a depressing Munster final. He took a chance in giving his team the week off and changed up his approach and personnel.

Aron Shanagher came in and he gives them something very different. I’ve always liked him as a player — there’s a danger to him and how he gets the ball into his hand so readily.

Sometimes he can cause them to play a bit one-dimensionally but on Saturday there was variety to their play from an early stage. David Reidy was buzzing around and getting very good service from the defence whereas Shane O’Donnell again delivered to his highest standards.

His goal was outstanding, the goalie going the wrong way, a beautiful finish and since nothing for him “is a lot to do”, he had a lot to do to score it. He is in phenomenal form and rude health, bouncing off defenders trying to foul him. Since coming back in the spring, he’s been a serious presence and we should enjoy him while he’s there.


Also importantly, in the first half, Tony Kelly was more himself. In the Munster final, he hadn’t been moving with any great fluency but on Saturday he was right back on form and had 0-5 by half-time, four from play. His scores were hit with absolute conviction, arrowed over the bar.

At 0-6 to 0-1, I was getting worried for Wexford because Clare were moving with intent that I hadn’t expected and looked like they had flushed the Munster final from their system more quickly than anticipated.

Lee Chin, Wexford’s key driver, also looked to me like he was carrying some kind of injury because he wasn’t moving fluently at all. Then you had Liam Ryan missing at the other end and Jack O’Connor also injured. From their point of view, it looked challenging.

Victorious Clare’s Tony Kelly with fans after the All-Ireland hurling championship quarter-final against Wexford at Semple Stadium, Thurles, Tipperary. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Then with all of this going on, Rory O’Connor got himself sent off at a time when he was their best player. He’s an experienced player and if the first yellow was a bit pale, the second was orange so it was at best, reckless.

If there’s a downside for Clare, though, it’s that they are inclined to play in fits and starts. At 0-12 to 0-5 ahead, they struggled when Wexford from nowhere started to come through them, led by Damien Reck and between a penalty and a few points, levelled the match.

Diarmuid Ryan summed it up. He got in a brilliant block on Rory O’Connor to save a certain goal but followed it up with two desperate wides. He used the ball much better in the second half.

It took courage and honesty for Brian Lohan to reboot the team after the Munster final and admit that what they had been doing wasn’t working. I didn’t see it coming to be honest but they have improved depth, look fresher and their tails will be up going into the semi-final.

Cork manager Pat Ryan said after the quarter-final with Dublin that he felt the lunchtime throw-in had really affected the energy levels of both teams and certainly those levels were low in a disappointing quarter-final.

Whatever life might have been breathed into the game was completely drained by the wides from both sides. For 67 minutes, Dublin didn’t look like they had any belief whatsoever that they would win. Then they found they were still eight behind but that Cork were now vulnerable.

In the last seven or eight minutes, including injury time, they had four shots at goal and it was uncomfortable for Cork in the finish because even if there was no present danger that they were going to lose, if one of those attempts found the net, then they would have been in real trouble and with momentum running strongly against them.

How did Cork end up in this predicament? They led by five at half-time and scored four unanswered points immediately afterwards to go nine up and with Shane Kingston and Robbie O’Flynn still to come in, it looked like “fasten your seat belts” time.

Dublin’s Danny Sutcliffe and Declan Dalton of an unconvincing Cork during the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final at Semple Stadium on Saturday. Cork emerged victorious from the fixture. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin scraped points back and Cork had a few but the lead never stretched to nine again. The match became a non-event, which suited Dublin, who simply wanted to avoid another Leinster final hiding. But they had realised by the end that Cork were in no way as threatening as they thought and if they put the boot down they could salvage something.

Their goal attempts weren’t clear-cut but they were getting in shots that they couldn’t have imagined being there for the taking earlier in the match.

The Cork genie that looked to have escaped from the bottle that night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — beating Limerick with a high-energy game in front of a hugely excited crowd of supporters and following it up with a big win over Tipperary — appears more an illusion.

What has happened since has even placed an asterisk over the two big performances: Tipp staying in touch for the first half and whether Limerick were in a training bloc at the time — because they looked far dynamic in the subsequent matches.

They had small wins like Robbie O’Flynn showing real urgency when he came on but otherwise, Alan Connolly didn’t score for the second match and those who did score, Declan Dalton and Shane Barrett also had two momentum-killing wides, one after another.

Cork are a team that thrive on confidence but I’m not sure how much of that they took out of Semple Stadium on to the bus home. Limerick’s odds will have tightened since Saturday morning.