Eamonn Sweeney: Semi-final meltdown will haunt Clare for a long time as they let Galway off the hook
Just when Biddy Earley thought she was out, Clare dragged her back in. Well, it's one explanation. Because there really was something uncanny about the way the Banner let Galway off the hook in the closing minutes yesterday. This was one of the great choke jobs in hurling history.
When Aron Shanagher's point left Clare one behind with six minutes remaining the underdogs were rampant. They suddenly looked stronger, quicker and fitter than a Galway team which had apparently shot its bolt. If Clare drew level or went ahead you felt the game was theirs.
Cue a sequence of misses so nightmarish it would probably be a good business move to immediately open a clinic for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Clare hurling fans.
Tony Kelly, who had one of those nothing-goes-right days which can afflict even the finest players, shot wide from a position where he'd normally be deadly. Ian Galvin found himself in space but pulled his shot wide. Sub Rory Hayes bombed out of defence but blazed wildly off target.
Clare were suffering a collective rush of blood to the head. But it looked like everything would turn out OK when the magnificent Shane O'Donnell cut through the heart of the Galway defence and put Shanagher clear with two minutes of normal time left.
Shanagher's first shot was half blocked by James Skehill but the rebound hopped up invitingly in front of the big sub. He batted the ball goalwards and it came back off the post, flying just past the inrushing O'Donnell.
A relieved Galway broke for Joe Canning to sweep a magnificent sideline cut over the bar. The score was just as important as Canning's winner in last year's semi-final and his general performance just as impressive.
Yet straight away John Conlon landed a marvellous point from the right wing - which ironically seemed to underline Clare's psychological frailty. When two points down they had no hang-ups about scoring but an equaliser seemed beyond them.
The collective meltdown became more bizarre still when Peter Duggan, so good all year, mishit a scorable free and had his shot blocked.
When Niall Burke put Galway two up Duggan brought the margin back to the minimum. Once more Clare seized up when given a chance to save the game. A Duggan shot from the wing dropped short, then Kelly struck the ball aimlessly out over the sideline and followed up with Clare's 19th wide. And that was all she wrote. Jean van de Velde and Jana Novotna would have sympathised.
You can praise Galway's resilience and calm nerve but these would have been irrelevant had Clare not bottled it. There are games which one team wrests in their direction by force of will and there are also games where the losers present victory to the winners. This was a prime example of the latter.
The Munster side's inability to add the finishing touches wasn't confined to the closing stages. Once more they were caught cold at the start but rallied in the second quarter. Yet some wild and wayward shooting meant that improvement was barely reflected on the scoreboard. Six points down at half-time, Clare looked unlikely to repeat last week's revival.
But if Kilkenny are hurling's Cats, Clare are the game's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Like Tennessee Williams' titular feline their determination to hang in there is their most impressive quality.
This is the frustrating paradox of this Clare side. No-one has more heart and spirit. No-one works harder. Yet no major team makes so many bad decisions and takes so many wrong options.
Their season has been pock-marked with points which should have been taken but were passed over in favour of unsuccessful goal attempts, with opposition goals arising from defensive mistakes and with points stemming from misdirected puck-outs.
At times this year the Banner have seemed possessed by a kind of death wish. This has gone hand in hand with an enormous bravery which made them huge contributors to the greatness of the championship. Watching them play brings to mind what the French general said about the Charge of the Light Brigade, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."
It's customary to say when a game goes down to the wire that the team which wants it most will win. Yet sometimes Clare seem to want it too much. Too much in any event to keep a sufficiently clear head.
So they left this game behind as they'd left the drawn game behind and left the Munster final behind. It may even be that they've left the Liam MacCarthy Cup behind too.
That might sound slightly cruel but no-one has been more cruel to Clare this year than Clare. Leaving it all on the pitch is little consolation when you've left victory there too.
What did these two epic clashes tell us about Galway? It's a glass half full or glass half empty question. The Galway optimist will say they've endured two gruelling tests and squeezed through in the end despite not being at their best.
His pessimistic counterpart may note that on both occasions they've faded after exhilarating first-quarter displays and looked considerably less invincible than in the early stages of the summer.
Yet they'll still start favourites against Limerick and Micheál Donoghue may well be thinking, 'When we didn't lose that game yesterday, our name might be on the trophy'.
Clare, who've beaten Limerick and should have beaten Galway, can only look on and think of what might have been. This latest loss could haunt them for a long time.
As Radiohead sang back in 1995, a year when the Banner did manage to beat Galway in an All-Ireland semi, "You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts/is that you do it to yourself, just you and no-one else."
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