By Michael O Connor.
All Ireland glory once more at Under 21 grade. Thurles, instead of Croke Park housed the event and the “home of hurling” venue that for so long was a funeral home for Clare dreams was on this occasion like 1995 a mecca of delight for joyous Clare men and women who basked in yet another step up on the hurling ladder. What, for many was special, was the post game celebrations on the pitch where all the faces that have helped develop the sport in the county were present to shake hands, hug, laugh, jump for joy or generally ramble on about how great it was to be simply at semple
Memories of 2009 came flooding back for spectators. The same buzz that enveloped the 2009 team was missing from this year but in many ways this title if it could be attained would show far more scope for the future as most of the 2009 side were either on the senior panel or now surplus to requirements. Success in Thurles would maintain the winning mentality as the senior team as always would need more recruits to their ranks. Pat O Connor and Conor McGrath were the only survivors from the historic day in Croker.
One element of 2009 that was still present was the unbelievable roar that Clare under 21 supporters appear to reserve for Thurles. It was heard each and every time that Clare scored or acted out a deed of bravery or skill. Clare started the action in whirlwind fashion and were more like Kilkenny than Kilkenny themselves. The Leinster champions captain Kevin Kelly opened the scoring from play after 15 seconds only for a huge roar to welcome Cathal McInerney’s equaliser. A brace of points from Cathal O Connell and Seadna Morey allied to a well taken goal from Cathal O Connell after an astute pass from McGrath left Clare (1-4) to (0-2) ahead as Padraig Walsh was the sole response for Kilkenny. A great effort from halfway by Pat O Connor left Clare (1-5) to (0-2) ahead with seven just minutes elapsed. When it appeared that Clare were in the ascendancy but as the remainder of the half displayed the cracks in the foundation were being papered over by the early lead.
For the remainder of the first half Clare managed just a miserly two points as they were pinned into their own half of the field and when they did break out they hit wides with ease and were a tad over confident in their shooting. Kevin Kelly, Walter Walsh and Geoff Brennan were impressive scorers as Cathal McInerney who alongwith Cathal O Connell were the main men for the bannermen in this latest All Ireland success at this grade.
Tony Kelly who had a few moments but did not live up to his normally consistently high standard went for a goal from 30 yards out on the new stand side when a near certain point was at his mercy. A powerful piece of individual play by towering Walter Walsh left three Clare defenders in his wake in the 18th minute ending with a point to leave just a goal between the sides with the balance of play definitely shifting the way of the noresiders entering the final ten minutes of the first half. Kevin Kelly and Cathal O Connell with his third score as Conor Ryan was now tracking Walsh. Pat O Connor who improved markedly in the second half looked in trouble on the left wing in the second quarter as the Clare half forward line were playing second fiddle. John Power, brother of Kilkenny senior Richie won a penalty after David McInerney was adjudged to have held him up and Power blasted the ball to the net to level matters with three minutes remaining in the first half. In true Kilkenny fashion they went for the jugular and hit a second goal after two defensive slips in the Clare rearguard with the game in first half injury time allowed Kilkenny corner forward Ger Alyward to poke the ball home and in the space of three minutes Kilkenny went from three in arrears to three in front. Alarm bells were ringing for Clare supporters. Halftime score Kilkenny (2-7) Clare (1-7). Over the hour Clare hit many more wides than Kilkenny and had nine different scorers as opposed to five for Kilkenny. The Clare full back line conceded (2-4) with all bar one point coming in the second quarter yet the mistakes outfield were causing discomfort for the last line of the Clare defence more so than any errors on their part. A huge part in the Clare success was the near invisible status of Cillian Buckley in the Kilkenny half forward line as he would have been looked to for leadership.
Clare had managed just a solitary point in the last twenty minutes of the half with Kilkenny hitting (2-3) and now it required a Clare fightback that had to be led from the front. Surprisingly Kilkenny tactics were one dimensional with the long ball to the full forward line the favoured ploy yet Kilkenny were operating five forwards and in the second half Paul Flanagan swept up all in front of him. The measure of hits that went in by the Clare forwards before the resumption throw in suggested hard words had been directed the way of certain attackers. Cathal O Connell (3) and Aaron Cunningham had the sides level five minutes into the new half before Ger Alyward now had to attain parity for Kilkenny as Clare had thrown down the gauntlet.
In reality it was not that the Clare defence had improved their collective efforts to a superhuman level to deny Kilkenny but more so that the Clare forwards had began to take over and attacked Kilkenny straight down the middle with huge success. The Cratloe factor was responsible for the next (1-2) as firstly McInerney who had lost his place in the side had his grandfather Tom jumping for joy and pumping his fist into the air with a great score and then Collins and McInerney combined to set up teammate and captain Conor McGrath to blast past Dylan Walsh. This score was effectively the game changing and title winning score as the game entered the 44th minute.
McGrath, Shane Golden and Cathal O Connell all hit the target between the 45th and 48th minutes with a single response from Kevin Kelly with the Clare support in full voice as Kilkenny were becoming more and more ragged in their play giving the ball away and gaining no access to Ronan Taaffe’s goal. The Clare bench was sprung into action as Peter Duggan in the 50th minute and Niall Arthur very late in the game were thrown into action as it was remembered that without Arthur’s supersub goal all Clare would have been watching the final on the big screen instead of being the main act. O Connell, McInerney and Tony Kelly with the last score and ironically his first ended the action as thousands of Clare supporters were already on the sideline ready to invade to acclaim their heroes and clubmates. In any winning campaign all who play have their moments but on judgement day some rise who prior to that had been support acts whilst others find the occasion a little overbearing. Best for the champions included Paul Flanagan, David McInerney, Seadna Morey for his blistering runs, Conor Ryan, Pat O Connor in the second half, Cathal McInerney, Cathal O Connell and Conor McGrath in the first and last ten minutes,
CLARE: Ronan Taaffe, Paul Flanagan, David McInerney, Killian Ryan, Patrick O Connor (0-1), Conor Ryan, Seadna Morey (0-1), Colm Galvin (0-1), Shane Golden (0-1), Tony Kelly (0-1), Padraic Collins, Aaron Cunningham (0-1), Cathal McInerney (0-4), Conor McGrath (1-1, Cathal O Connell (0-6). Subs: Peter Duggan for Cunningham, Niall Arthur for Collins,
KILKENNY: Dylan Walsh, Jason Corcoran, Willie Phelan, Brian Kennedy, Luke Harney, Richie Doyle, Joe Lyng, Geoff Brennan (0-1), Ollie Walsh, Kevin Kelly (0-6), Padraig Walsh, Cillian Buckley, Walter Walsh (0-2), John Power (1-1), Ger Aylward (1-1). Subs: Martin Gaffney for O Walsh, for Cathal Kenny for P Walsh
Referre: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork).
Cathal O Connell was man of the match surely shading Cathal McInerney.