By Michael O Connor.
The superlatives have been all being used, the emotions expressed, the efforts rewarded and the bounty has not been necessarily been all about the silverware but a quiet satisfaction that once again sport has lifted a county and its people to a high not witnessed in nearly two decades.
In an ordinary year and that has not happened for some time a title at under 21 level and a long run in the championship would be lauded by Clare hurling folk. Defeat at this level once reached was unthinkable as is the belief that titles will fall the way of Clare for the next half decade. Galway in 2012 lost a replayed final with many suggesting they would be contenders for years to come. Reality is often bitter so this win is all the more extraordinary.
Word was out before the game and indeed the days prior that Shane O Donnell was a contender to start and when it was announced a warm glow came over supporters that he could hunt for the elusive goals that were hampering Clare. Indeed at a training game the previous week such was the frequency of goals that were being scored the session was cut short to keep the players hungry for more.
A full house of 82,276 welcomed both sides onto the field but no one could have predicted that it would be a 8 goal spectacle after 70 odd minutes of hurling and that three would be scored by a 19 year old pitched in at the deep end. Clare won the toss and elected to play into the Hill 16 end as Conor McGrath had the first effort wide in the first minute. He went on to be the busiest man on the field and on an ordinary day be selected man of the match. John Conlon who suffered many knocks and scrapes over the season opened the scoring as Podge Collins and McGrath pulled outfield to leave O Donnell and Shane O Neill together. O Donnell sent out signs of what was waiting to explode onto the scene with a point on first touch. Seamus Harnedy and Lorcan McLoughlin hit back to level the game as Cork were raining in high ball on Pa Cronin and CIan Dillon and for the first half did profit from the breaking ball and frees committed by Clare backs.
Conor McGrath sent Clare ahead before a lung bursting run through the Cork defence by Donnellan released O Donnell who blasted past Anthony Nash for the first goal of eight. Colin Ryan, Patrick Horgan (free), Conor Lehane and Ryan once more kept the scorekeeper busy to leave Cork (1-5) to (0-4) in arrears by the 12th minute. When Clare needed goals they took the chances coming their way and this was crucial later in the game as Cork took a foothold, similar to the drawn game. Conor McGrath provided goalmaker for O Donnell who struck for goal number 2 after 13 minutes. Clare were now seven clear, but not for long. Conor Lehane struck for his first of two points before Cian Dillon was adjudged to foul Pa Cronin. Up jogged Anthony Nash and despite 13 Clare men in front of him rippled the Clare net. (3-10) scored by the two sides and only 17 minutes playtime. Colin Ryan (free after a foul on John Conlon) and Patrick Horgan (free) swopped scores in the space of a minute before goal number 3. A high ball sent in saw it break off John Conlon as O Neill was caught out of position. O Donnell raced clear and batted to the net and the game only 20 minutes old.
The plotlines were all over the game with huge similarities to the drawn game but now Clare were hitting goals with a frequency never before witnessed by a Clare side. Cork began to settle as Clare did not manage a fourth goal for the 15 minutes remaining in the first half. Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy, Pa Cronin and Horgan (2) struck for 5 Cork points in 15 minutes and were causing problems for Clare without hitting the net. Clare kept on the scoresheet courtesy of Tony Kelly and Ryan (2) with Cork hitting the final four scores of the half. The final action of the half was a half chance for a four Shane O Donnell goal as Clare took a (3-9) to (1-11) interval lead into the second half.
Stephen Moylan who had a big impact when introduced for Luke O Farrell scoring (1-1) was what Cork needed on a day when Clare were scoring goals. Tony Kelly hit over the first point of the second half as Cork resumed with the aerial bombardment of the Clare goal. Pat Horgan, Stephen Moylan and Horgan once again narrowed the Clare lead to two points after 42 minutes.
Cork were exerting great pressure on the Clare backs and their clearances forcing errors as many feared that the Cork fightback was now becoming too much for Clare. Two further scores by Horgan, both frees had the sides on level terms, (3-10) to (1-16) after 52 minutes action. Finished with his goal scoring exploits Shane O Donnell struck over a point and when two minutes later John Conlon added another it was clear that it was now a shoot out with Clare rallying after 10 minutes of backfooting.
Five minutes of end to end fare culminated with an equalising goal and it was Seamus Harnedy who first timed to the net after a rebound from Domhnall O Donovan’s body after Conor Lehane’s initial effort. The game was now reaching levels rarely seen on GAA fields and more to come. Conor McGrath decided to leave his mark on GAA history with a searing run through the centre and one of the goals for any age past the helpless Anthony Nash. Clare were now once again three clear. The hearts were pumping all over the Clare hurling world and when Tony Kelly and Shane O Donnell scored exceptional scores to send Clare five clear one could feel a hand on the cup with the saffron and blues ribbons getting ready for attachment.
A standing ovation was accorded to hat trick hero Shane O Donnell as he made way for Darach Honan who was on a mission to leave his own mark on the final after losing his place on the starting 15. In the 69th minute Colin Ryan with his seventh and final score left Clare six points clear. One last attack by Cork stunned Clare as Stephen Moylan hit the net with a brilliant strike to once more leave a single score, albeit a goal between the teams. Clare nerves were hanging on a thread as Cork made one more foray. The ball broke in the Clare square. Seamus Harnedy had a half chance blocked and Seadna Morey came out the field with the ball and his strike found Darach Honan who turned goalwards. His attempted bat to the net from an acute angle failed but the ball somewhat wriggled past everyone and over the line. With this Davy Fitzgerald collapsed to the ground, the cameras flashed all around bringing instant images on the creation of a new sporting chapter for the GAA and Clare people everywhere.
The hurling world attempted for the last half decade or so to challenge Kilkenny’s dominance in the air with little success and required Kilkenny to come to the end of the time at the top. The new style of pace, first touch, evasive sprinting interspersed with the short game when required is now the test that faces teams playing Clare in the future. Great times have been enjoyed and more to be experienced.
Best for Clare were Domhnall O Donovan, David McInerney, Brendan Bugler, Tony Kelly, Conor McGrath, John Conlon, Shane O Donnell, Colin Ryan from frees and Patrick Donnellan. All others had huge influence in the 8 game campaign. Cork, should not be forgotten in a year that will never be erased from the memories of GAA followers. Over the two games they held for just one minute and still managed to score the exact same in two games. They will be around next year with Aidan Walsh in a starting jersey. Best for the rebels were Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy, Seamus Harnedy. Pa Cronin, Patrick Horgan, Conor Lehane and Stephen Moylan.
CLARE: Patrick Kelly, Domhnall O'Donovan, David McInerney, Cian Dillon, Brendan Bugler, Pat Donnellan, Pat O'Connor, Conor Ryan, Colm Galvin, John Conlon (0-2), Tony Kelly (0-3), Colin Ryan (0-7), Podge Collins, Shane O’Donnell (3-3), Conor McGrath (1-1).
Subs: Cathal McInerney for Galvin, Nicky O’Connell for Collins, Darach Honan (1-0) for O’Donnell, Seadna Morey for Kelly.
CORK: Anthony Nash (1-0), Stephen McDonnell, Shane O’Neill, Conor O’Sullivan, Brian Murphy, Christopher Joyce, William Egan, Lorcan McLoughlin (0-1), Daniel Kearney, Seamus Harnedy (1-2), Cian McCarthy, Pa Cronin (0-1), Luke O’Farrell, Patrick Horgan (0-9), Conor Lehane (0-2).
Subs: Stephen White for Egan, Stephen Moylan (1-1) for O’Farrell, Tom Kenny for Kearney, Cathal Naughton for McCarthy
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).
After the game Liam O Neill, President of the GAA and a affirmed hurling lover handed over the Liam McCarthy cup to Patrick Donnellan amid scenes of unbridled joy, emotion and elation all wrapped in one glorious unforgettable image.