Horgan stands tall to deliver telling blows in gripping finish
Cork 0-20 Clare 0-17
The scorecards favoured Clare ever so slightly when these two weary fighters rose from their corners for a 15th and final round.
Eyes swelled to the point of closure, punches now swinging heavily and aimlessly, it was a matter of who could stand on their feet and hear the bell.
But from somewhere Cork summoned the energy and resolve to deliver a series of knockout blows and settle a game where the lead had changed hands seven times and the number of wides, remarkably, matched the scoreline, 20-17 to Cork.
Five points without reply down the home straight, four from the hurl of Patrick Horgan, and all the questions marks placed over this Cork team since their All-Ireland semi-final capitulation had suddenly become answers. They may end the season without silverware but this Cork hurling team made some statement in Thurles on Saturday night.
For the fourth successive year Jimmy Barry-Murphy has landed a team in the 'last six' of the hurling championship - only Brian Cody and Kilkenny can match, and obviously better, that sequence.
For the third successive League or Championship game since their All-Ireland replay defeat in 2013, Cork have found a way against Clare.
The corrective surgery, pioneered in Wexford Park to some success seven days earlier, took firm hold here.
Mark Ellis read the game superbly in his role as sweeper, providing the right balance between support for Brian Murphy on Shane O'Donnell behind him and vigilance of the skies in front.
Brian Lawton dropped back to pick up the ever-dangerous Tony Kelly and while there isn't a hope of any defender putting Kelly out of a game, Lawton still had some success, notably an effective hook in the 26th minute that denied a certain score at one end and instantly created one at the other for Horgan.
Horgan continued to thrive in his liberation from front-line duties, dropping deep around his half-forward line.
There were times during the first half when his radar was off, four wides from the 11 they registered before the break, but the measure of him was how he responded when the bell went for that last round.
Clare had wrestled back control with four successive points between the 54th and 60th minutes to lead by 0-17 to 0-15, the last from substitute Colm Galvin prompting one of the biggest cheers of the night from the 25,245 crowd.
Surely the cue for Clare to hammer it home? Make Cork rue those missed chances, especially those four between the 47th and 51st minutes when they were dominant but couldn't cash in as Alan Cadogan, substitute Rob O'Shea, Pa Cronin and Conor Lehane were off the mark?
But instead it was Cork, and Horgan, who took it on, Seamus Harnedy too playing a leading role in the late rush.
The scores apart, Cork's defiance in the face of defeat manifested everywhere. Aidan Walsh, enjoying his best game since Waterford in last year's Championship, got in a superb block on O'Donnell, Conor Lehane the same on Pat O'Connor, each time sowing doubt in Clare's minds.
Cormac Murphy too hasn't had a better day in a red shirt, forceful always in his pursuit of possession while Bill Cooper threw himself into everything around midfield. Little wonder then that character was the theme of Barry Murphy's post-match reflection.
"Every team, no matter what level they're playing at, Barcelona, Kilkenny, Tipperary, it comes from work rate, if you don't have that you have nothing."
Identifying defensive improvements after two defeats to Waterford wasn't "rocket science," he reasoned.
"We knew we were conceding too many goals and we knew we had to get our defensive set-up right. And we're still trying to get it right. It's a work in progress and we feel we're going the right way."
That phone-call to Murphy in May may well one of the most important he has made as an inter-county manager.
The veteran defender quietly did enough to quell the furnace in O'Donnell though O'Donnell's propensity to seek space for goals probably cost him.
That said, Clare did create whatever goal chances were there, O'Donnell's shot off Conor McGrath's run in the ninth minute the clearest in the opening half.
Like Horgan, McGrath dropped deep and used the freedom well to land three points and, with Kelly, provide the biggest threat. Significantly Clare withdrew John Conlon at half-time but not by choice as Davy Fitzgerald explained afterwards, suggesting they had been "advised" to before he was sent off.
"We didn't want to do it but we were more or less told that if we didn't, it would be happening very quickly and we might be down to 14 which is hard. He got a yellow early.
"Maybe it was a good tip-off if that's what was in his head," said Fitzgerald, leaving his audience to guess where the 'advice' had come from. Still, Fitzgerald was measured in his assessment of the night and where Clare are. For them, the aftermath of their 2013 All-Ireland title has been very challenging.
The statistics are stark, just one win from six Championship games (against Offaly last week) and seasonal exile short of All-Ireland quarter-finals for the second successive year. They'll take up a place in Division 1B on the starting grid in 2016. By any measurement those indicators make grim reading.
Fitzgerald still has sufficient currency as an All-Ireland-winning manager to continue and, at least, the spirit Clare repeatedly showed here, will hearten him.
The question of his future will be decided over "a chat" with the board in the coming weeks. "The day I feel I'm not up to it there'll be no fear, I'm not here to last in Clare for the next ten years," he said.
But there's little doubt that his desire to re-assemble the broken pieces is strong.
"The only solace I can take is, I know we are on the way back," he predicted. "Our determination and our fight, we were doing it in patches last year but I just knew we weren't right. We hadn't had that same desire and grit to grind it out," he suggested.
"You have to take into account, most of these players won three 21s and a senior, right? Clare came from a place where we won only one U-21, no senior for years and that is what we have done in the last few years.
"Like, there is a lot asked of these guys. But they were trying. There was a lot more... let's just say I am a lot happier with how they went. I think there would be no fear of Clare over the next few years."
Scorers - Cork: P Horgan 0-8 (5fs), S Harnedy P Cronin, C Lehane 0-2 each, A Cadogan, C Murphy, A Walsh, B Cooper, J Coughlan, P O'Sullivan 0-1 each.
Clare: T Kelly 0-5 (1f), C McGrath 0-3, Colin Ryan (2fs), S O'Donnell 0-2 each, S Golden, Conor Ryan, C Galvin, D McInerney, D Honan 0-1 each.
Cork - A Nash 7; S McDonnell 7, B Murphy 7, D Cahalane 7; A Walsh 8, M Ellis 8, B Lawton 7; C Murphy 8, D Kearney 6; B Cooper 8, A Cadogan 6, P Cronin 7; P Horgan 8, S Harnedy 8, C Lehane 7. Subs: R O'Shea 6 for Kearney (43), J Coughlan 7 for Cadogan (50), P O'Sullivan 7 for Cronin (58), D McCarthy for Lawton (65).
Clare - P Kelly 7; D McInerney 8, C Dillon 7, S Morey 8; J Browne 6, B Bugler 7, P O'Connor 7; Conor Ryan 7, Colin Ryan 6; J Conlon 6, T Kelly 8, C McGrath 8, S Golden 6; D Honan 6, S O'Donnell 7. Subs: A Cunningham 6 for Conlon (h-t), P Donnellan 7 for Colin Ryan (43), C Galvin 6 for Golden (48),D Reidy 6 for Morey (57), J Conlon for Honan (67)
Ref - B Kelly (Westmeath)
MAN OF THE MATCH
Bill Cooper (Cork)
Patrick Horgan was the matchwinner with his quartet of points at the end, but Cooper’s industry and bravery on a difficult night created the conditions for Cork to stay in this game through their most turbulent moments.
A game that had the same number of wides as points for both teams, 20-17, but Cork’s unwillingness to yield when they were under most duress was a feature. Clare haven’t beaten them in three games since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay and have failed to make quarter-finals for the second successive year which will bring inevitable pressure on the management of Davy Fitzgerald.
The touch from Conor Lehane to Patrick Horgan in the build-up to Lehane’s 25th minute score was class but the Kanturk telepathy between Anthony Nash an Aidan Walsh for Walsh’s point just after the restart was something special.
On a difficult night Barry Kelly got the balance right between letting this game flow and frees awarded.
Cork 8 (5 first half)
Clare 7 (5)
Cork 3 ( Lehane 18, Walsh 33,
Clare 4 (Conlon 15, Dillon 35,
McInerney 60, O’Donnell 65)
Cork meet Galway in the All-Ireland
quarter-final on Sunday, July 26,
while Clare must look to 2016 for