Davy springs magical move as helter-skelter final swings to Banner
IN a hurling season for the ages that was never so much about the quality on display as about the sheer magic of a game that consistently delivers when it is played in this spirit, and with this speed and honesty of endeavour, a fitting conclusion was reached in the dimming light of Croke Park last night. A harum-scarum of a final, 70 minutes of unbelievable toil that teased and, sometimes, tormented us before finally decanting Clare as deserving winners on a scoreline of 5-16 to 3-16.
There were so many plotlines it is a tough job quite knowing where to begin. With Shane O'Donnell's career-defining 3-3 perhaps. That would have to do it because, in the sheer improbability of it all, O'Donnell wasn't meant to start yesterday's game and it just had to happen that the man O'Donnell replaced, Darach Honan, would come on near the end to inflict the last act, a batted shot that just trickled over Anthony Nash's line and made sure Clare reached their fully deserved destiny.
There had been feverish speculation in the hours leading up to the game that Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald would spring a surprise, although the nature of it remained subject to heated debate. Some word filtered around that an indication had been given by team management that Clare would field an unchanged side from the drawn game, but there seemed too much smoke about for there to be no fire.
And, sure enough, news then came through that Shane O'Donnell would start at full-forward in place of an apparently fit Darach Honan. By half-time O'Donnell – with 3-2 to his name before yesterday – would almost have doubled his tally for the summer. On the stroke of James McGrath's half-time whistle, O'Donnell had a chance to rifle a fourth goal, but delayed his strike and got swallowed up. That's how close to the realm of fantasy that Clare brought us.
BREATHTAKING FINAL WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY PAGES 2-5
By that stage they enjoyed a handy four-point lead, although they'd reflect that, just as in the drawn game three weeks ago, they were value for much more. Cork struck for four unanswered points in the closing five minutes of the half and the suspicion lingered that Fitzgerald's young team might lack the Kilkenny-like ruthlessness to close it out.
Beaten nearly all over the field again, yet like a bad smell, Cork simply refused to go away.
Indeed, in so many respects, the script uncannily resembled that of the original fixture. Clare lording it over their opponents in so many sectors, forging their authority where it mattered, only this time by dint of the green flag rather than the white. Cork furiously chasing, clumsy and a touch discordant in parts, but doing what they did so well three weeks ago, hanging in, clawing onto the ledge with blood-red fingertips.
And, true to form, we even got the early blessing of an Anthony Nash interjection, the goalkeeper marching forward to crash a 20-metre free to the net after 15 minutes to the slapstick backdrop of 12 Clare players guarding Pa Kelly's net.
Fitzgerald and half his back-room team might have joined them for all the difference it would have made, such was the sweetness of Nash's net-bulging strike.
In truth, it wasn't a classic of a game. But it made for classic viewing. While Clare dominated for a lengthy spell, they will look at the shoddiness of the defending that led to each of O'Donnell's goals. The space Pat Donnellan had to run into to make the first. The manner in which they were opened up for the second, like a cheap tin of sardines, William Egan's careless slip that led to the third.
And yet, as Jimmy Barry-Murphy's side has resolutely done all year, they refused to buckle. Four of the first five points in the second-half came off Cork hurls. That made eight of the previous nine. They trailed by one now. Their breath hot and sticky on the back of nervous Clare necks. One Cork free had Davy furiously finger-wagging in James McGrath's direction. The next Clare free rebounded off a post.
And so the breezy, almost carefree openness of the first-half was gone, replaced by a tension that gripped the stadium like a vice and seemed to swing things Cork's way. And credit to Barry-Murphy's men, they tightened up immeasureably the longer the game went on. Shane O'Neill had recovered from his first-half nightmare against O'Donnell and Cork seemed to grow in stature from it.
After an eight-minute spell without a score, Pat Horgan shot Cork level and a red blanket shot from the stands like a spurt of blood. Yet if that seemed to signal a Cork power surge to victory, Clare thundered back to jolt us out of our certainties. They sneaked three points clear again, then leaked a goal to the admirable Seamus Harnedy. That was a mere prelude to what was to come.
There were still two more Clare goals to come, a Cork reply by Stephen Moylan, a sustained period where Clare nerves became frayed until Honan came on and released them joyously from their torment.
Just magnificent really.