JUNE 23 at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds: Davy Fitzgerald's callow young Banner men have just lost the second half of a Munster semi-final by 15 points to four.
It's a long, long way for Clare from there . . .
August 18 at Croke Park: Davy Fitz's Banner bravehearts have just come of age, toppling Munster champions Limerick by a margin (seven points) and in a manner (emphatic) that brooked no argument.
Their reward: qualification for this year's All-Ireland senior hurling final on September 8. And the opposition: the very Cork team that ultimately steamrolled them in that provincial semi-final almost two months ago.
In many respects, none of us should be surprised that the most weird and wonderful hurling championship in living memory continues to confound us at every turn.
The two breakthrough provincial champions both floored at the penultimate stage. A first SHC decider between 'back door' teams since 2004. A first all-Munster All-Ireland since '97 – the last year Clare took home Liam MacCarthy.
Their ball-of-energy goalkeeper back then is now their irrepressible boss. Davy Fitz may rub officialdom and some neutrals up the wrong way, but the former Waterford supremo has consistently proven himself in the managerial cauldron (yesterday was his fifth time in six attempts to reach a semi-final) and now he is through to his second All-Ireland.
Five years ago, his previous final turned into a waking nightmare – but that was against the greatest team ever, Kilkenny, at their very peak. This time, even though Cork have already beaten them this summer by a convincing eight-point margin, there will be no one rushing to acclaim Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men as champions-elect.
This final is so close to call, partly because Clare have improved so much on their scenic journey to September.
Over their last three games they have ticked more and more boxes. Whereas against Wexford they were forced to extra-time by carelessness late on and a raft of earlier wides, yesterday their execution was as close to flawless as you'll get.
They shot just five wides over 70 minutes. Their first wide of the second half didn't come until the 68th minute, when the game was as good as gone from Limerick. And in Colin Ryan, they had a metronomic free-taker who never looked like he would miss – no matter what the angle – and never did either, with the debatable exception of a 90-yard effort that didn't quite have the distance.
Ryan nailed nine frees, and 11 points in total, on a day when he was challenged for Man of the Match honours by a coterie of Clare colleagues – none more effective than Tony Kelly, he of the dancing feet and lightning wrists.
Yet before further examination of Kelly & Co, this would be an apposite point to put Clare's victory in context.
They were facilitated on so many fronts by Limerick, who singularly failed to bring their dynamic Munster form to Croker. Was it all down to the five-week break?
In retrospect, it probably didn't help but that hardly explains the Treaty men's meltdown, especially in the first half when the agenda was set and Clare established a commanding 1-10 to 0-6 lead by the midpoint.
Where Ryan executed his frees with supreme confidence, Declan Hannon had a 'shocker' that no one could have seen coming. Limerick's most high-profile young talent converted just two from six of his placed ball attempts, a 45-yard miss from in front of the Hill 16 points being the most glaring.
It seemed clear from early doors that his self-belief was waning. But he wasn't the only Limerick forward at odds with his game: Seánie Tobin's build-up had been badly hampered by injury and maybe this explains his subjugation by Domhnall O'Donovan, leading to his 32nd-minute substitution just after his man had burst out of defence to set up one of Kelly's four dazzling points.
While Clare clearly won every first-half battle – in terms of tactics, first touch, finishing – it wasn't a case that Limerick were being blown apart in the possession stakes. Yet, at times, you were left to wonder if they knew what to do with whatever hard-earned ball came their way.
Inside 10 minutes, the Munster champions had five wides on the board. During the same spell, David Breen had carried the ball too far – in apparent search of a goal – instead of taking his point while Graeme Mulcahy had seen their best goal chance smartly saved by Patrick Kelly, amid the suspicion of a penalty as he was tackled by Pat Donnellan.
Donnellan had started, as expected, in the sweeper role and his major influence was helped by Limerick's tendency to play long, hopeful ball that literally played into Clare hands. Davy Fitz playing seven defenders scarcely qualified as the third secret of Fatima: surely John Allen saw this coming?
Further signs of early Limerick disarray could be gleaned from how Donnellan ghosted into a completely unmarked attacking position and was duly located by Ryan's clever crossfield free for Clare's opening point. Fitzgerald's decision to switch 19-year-old Kelly out to midfield – in direct combat with Limerick's 33-year-old skipper, Donal O'Grady – would ultimately prove something of a masterstroke.
When Kelly emerged from a 'ruck' to land the first of his four points, the Banner men led by 0-3 to 0-1. Yet the next score carried greater significance than any other, even if Clare's 12th-minute goal won't score highly for artistic impression. Even replays weren't entirely conclusive, but Darach Honan's boot was adjudged to have got the vital touch after a long delivery precipitated a goalmouth scramble.
Clare now led by five, and Limerick would never get closer than four for the remainder of the contest.
Briefly, the green hordes in an attendance of 62,962 were given a glimpse of paradise when substitute Shane Dowling – having assumed free-taking duties from the forlorn Hannon – landed the first three scores of the second half in a four-minute shellburst.
Once more the deficit was cut to four, but Ryan (who else?) restored normal service soon after. Thereafter, Limerick rarely threatened the goal they so badly craved (Dowling went closest from a free, only to be denied by Kelly) and Clare's triumph was assured long before the final whistle.
This was no classic, largely because of Limerick's non-performance, but Clare won't care. Roll on the Rebels!