Dillon to fore as Crusheen become Goliaths
CRUSHEEN proved that Clare hurling's old order is well and truly altered by retaining their county title at a waterlogged Cusack Park yesterday.
They only won their first senior title last season -- a year after Cratloe broke their duck -- but yesterday became the first club in 12 years to manage back-to-back championships.
Holding off former superpowers Sixmilebridge -- who had new county manager Davy Fitzgerald among their bench, as first-choice goalkeeper Derek Fahy was passed fit to play -- proved that the Banner's hurling Davids have now become its new Goliaths.
Yet there will be long debate about whether or not this game should have gone ahead.
Conditions in Ennis were so dire that the curtain-raising intermediate final was diverted to Clarecastle to try to preserve the pitch, yet the rain was so incessant that it was still a quagmire.
Any ball that fell cleanly from high buried itself immediately and players sloshed around and drew fresh airs regularly as it was impossible to gauge the flight of the sodden sliothar.
Former county star Niall Gilligan (35), who lined out at full-forward for 10-time winners the 'Bridge -- back in their first final since 2002 -- certainly felt it should have been called off.
"It might sound like sour grapes, but I don't think it should have gone ahead, I've never played a game in those conditions," the veteran said.
"Clare were one of the first teams to get knocked out of the All-Ireland championship yet here we are only playing our county final now, at the end of October, in these conditions.
"And the Munster Club game (against Carrigtwohill of Cork) is three weeks away -- what difference would it have made to wait a week?"
Conditions made a lottery of it for the first 40 minutes, yet Crusheen somehow managed to rise above them, despite being under the cosh for most of the first half when the 'Bridge had the advantage of the driving rain and peppered their goalmouth with Hail Marys.
Gilligan himself had a good goal chance after 23 minutes when he won a penalty but drove it over the bar.
"I didn't go for goal," he revealed afterwards. "In the conditions I felt I wouldn't be able to control it right so I took the point to make it 0-3 all.
"In hindsight you could say I should have gone for a goal, but that's easy talk now: points were hard to come by and there was still plenty of time to play."
Crusheen were still mightily relieved to go in 0-4 to 0-3 up at half-time, thanks largely to Jamie Fitzgibbon and their heroic half-back line of Ciaran O'Doherty and the Dillon brothers Cathal and Cian.
They got a scare on resumption when Tadgh Keogh found Gilligan, who bore down on their goal but the ball got stuck in the mud and excellent Crusheen 'keeper Donal Touhy cleared it to safety.
The 'Bridge were on top in the first half but on resumption it was all Crusheen.
Pat Vaughan and Joseph Meaney wrested back control of midfield, which Tony Carmody had been dominating, and when Vaughan rose a great sideline cut that hit the post it was their first wide of the game.
Minutes later, David Forde made an inspirational high catch and suddenly the champions found their feet amid all the mud.
Best known for their defensive strengths, Crusheen's forwards suddenly attacked the game with vigour, led brilliantly by Man of the Match contender Gearoid O'Donnell, Paddy Meaney and Fergus Kennedy.
Ten minutes after the restart they bagged four unanswered points in two minutes and when Vaughan tagged on a fifth they were suddenly six points clear after 45 minutes, an unassailable lead given the conditions.
That Sixmilebridge only scored once in the second half, a point by Gilligan, demonstrates the ferocity with which Crusheen's entire team defended.
"Nothing was going to get in our way, conditions, opposition, nothing! We knew what we had to do," said Cian Dillon, the former All-Ireland U-21 winner whose performance at centre-back earned him Man of the Match.
"We've always been told we're punching above our weight but we believe we belong here now. We've a serious team and we're going to be here for a few years and hopefully more will come," said the 22-year-old trainee primary school teacher.
Through the muck and the rain, manager Michael Browne looked similarly radiant, saying: "To win a first one you need a fantastic team but to retain it, and become the first team to do it in Clare for 12 years, that's a huge, huge occasion for a small little club like Crusheen. They're just a fantastic bunch of lads."
Scorers -- Crusheen: G O'Donnell 0-3, J Fitzgibbon, P Vaughan (2f), P Meaney 0-2 each, F Kennedy 0-1. Sixmilebridge: N Gilligan 0-3 (1f, 1 pen), Danny Morey 0-1.
Crusheen -- D Touhy; J Brigdale, Cronan Dillon, A Brigdale; C O'Doherty, Cian Dillon, Cathal Dillon; P Vaughan, J Meaney; G O'Donnell, J Fitzgibbon, D Forde; P Meaney, G O'Grady, F Kennedy.
Sixmilebridge -- D Fahy; T Keogh, A Quilligan, S Morey; J Fennessy, P Fitzpatrick, R Conlon; S Golden, T Carmody; J Shanahan, R Shanahan, Declan Morey; Danny Morey, N Gilligan, C Morey. Subs: T Purcell for Conlon (45), B Culbert for Declan Morey (45), D O'Connor for Carmody (55).
Ref -- R Hickey.