Tony Kelly, in the most emphatic and spectacular fashion, demonstrated why he is one of the most gifted hurlers in the game by inspiring Clare to their first National Hurling League title since 1978 at Semple Stadium.
aterford looked destined to retain the title they won last year, late scores from Patrick Curran and substitute Brian O’Halloran, which put them a goal clear, appearing enough to finally shake Clare off the trail. But there was still time for a dramatic late twist.
Colin Ryan’s free left Clare trailing by two points heading into three minutes of injury-time, with all the odds on a Waterford victory, but a point by Darach Honan left the minimum between the teams and gave Clare a flicker of hope. With a minute of play left their hopes at best were for a draw and another serving of extra-time. Then Kelly levelled it with a monster free from nearly 90m, realising those hopes, and, not satisfied with that, in the last play he scored an incredible point from the sideline under enormous pressure. Diarmaid Kirwan sounded his final whistle and Clare celebrated a famous victory.
It wasn’t the perfect performance and they had to rely heavily on Kelly who ended the day with 1-6, back to the stirring form he showed three years ago when Clare won the All-Ireland, but their unbeaten run continues and their confidence will be bolstered by the way they came later to pinch victory. Waterford were desperately unlucky not to at least earn a draw, having hurled well throughout and looking the better team for longer periods, or at least the more balanced. That said, one of their goals was handed to them after a dreadful error by the Clare defender Pat O’Connor.
After the drawn match a week before had taken until extra-time to open up, this was a riveting spectacle from the start, with a sensational start as well as finish. Curran had the ball in the Clare net after only 18 seconds, rounding O’Connor and finishing past Patrick Kelly, Clare’s defence looking unsound, not for the last time during the afternoon.
Waterford had the advantage of the breeze and changed their puck-out strategy, electing to go long and down the middle of Clare’s defence most of the time. They were also more pinpoint on their frees, Curran retaining the duty this time to the finish and scoring 1-9, six frees and ’65 included in his ample collection. He had a huge match. Austin Gleeson, subdued in the drawn match, was also outstanding, scoring three points and a major influence from beginning to end.
At the back there were typically parsimonious with Tadhg de Burca sweeping effectively and Clare got only one real goal chance, brilliantly taken by Kelly when he cut through a rare gap in the Waterford defence and finished to the bottom corner to breathe new life into Clare’s challenge in the 48th minute. At that stage they were six points down and struggling to stay afloat, Waterford having scored four points without reply to take a 2-15 to 0-15 lead.
Buoyed by Kelly’s goal Clare came storming back and the last 20 minutes had some great hurling and wonderful scores, with Waterford leading all the way until injury-time, their lead moving from one to three points at different stages. Honan pointed after Kelly’s goal but Waterford reacted with scores from Curran and Shane Bennett, the latter picking up a poorly-struck line ball from Kelly and haring away before splitting the posts. On the hour mark it put Waterford a goal clear and seemed a signal it was their day.
The pattern continued. Kelly and David Reidy hit massive scores from the middle of the field only for Curran and O’Halloran to reply with six minutes left, leaving them three points clear. But Waterford didn't score again and Clare’s last three scores, which overhauled the lead in breathtaking fashion, came in injury-time like a rapid fire attack from which Waterford had no time to respond.
As a spectacle, in spite of fears of it being manacled by defensive tactics and crowding of the middle third, it bore little resemblance to its predecessor. Curran’s goal provided the spark, the net billowing in just 18 seconds after no goal over 80 minutes a week earlier. Curran scored his first free and Derek McGrath’s side were off to the perfect start.
Two brilliant points from Kelly eased Clare into the match and Aaron Cunningham did his confidence no harm with a fine early strike from a difficult position. When Reidy won a free for Conor McGrath, he converted to bring the ides level at 0-5 to 1-2 after 15 minutes. McGrath finished the first half with eight points, including three from play, but failed to score in the second half, Ryan taking over the free-taking when he was introduced. Still, McGrath, again, made a massive contribution.
Clare edged in front through McGrath in the 17th minute but the sides were level and finely balanced when Clare committed an error that could only be possible in the current day with the emphasis on possession. O’Connor’s attempt at an ambitious lateral stick pass, literally across the width of the pitch, went straight to Curran who could hardly believe his luck. He made ground and when the Clare cover arrived he offloaded to Jake Dillon, alone near the Clare goal, who finished after 19 minutes.
Clare never looked like a goal in the first half, with de Burca sweeping majestically, and using short puck-outs they built their attacks for the most part from deep. Kelly played virtually as a centre back and was outstanding from the start, his game having come on with the benefit of last weekend’s match, which followed a long injury lay-off. Podge Collins looked sharp too and was frequently involved and he drew a foul which gave McGrath a pointed free soon after the second Waterford goal.
Then Waterford hit one of their best spells, scoring four unanswered points, starting off with a huge catch and score from Gleeson. Curran added a free and two more points from Bennett and Jamie Barron had them 2-7 to 0-7 in front ten minutes from the interval, Clare struggling to get a grip on the game. Colm Galvin failed to find the form of which he is capable and was later substituted, with Reidy again the better of Clare’s midfielders.
But Clare finished the half well, with McGrath their main marksman, recovering well from missing his first free. In the final ten minutes he had five points, including the last three of the half to leave Clare in a healthier position entering the break, 0-12 to 2-9 down.
The second half started with the entertainment not dropping a notch, Gleeson pointing on the spin, and then O’Connor atoning to some degree for his earlier lapse by striking a long distance point. Clare looked to score long, wing back David Fitzgerald also on target. Ultimately, though, they needed the goal, and they needed a small miracle at the end. They had both in Tony Kelly.
The attendance of 14,201 was disappointingly low, perhaps affected by much of the sterile play in the drawn game. There will be a far greater crowd in Thurles when these sides meet again in the Munster Championship in four weeks.
Scorers: Clare - T Kelly 1-6 (0-1 f), C McGrath 0-8 (0-5 fs), D Honan, C Ryan (f) 0-2, D Reidy, P Collins, A Cunningham, P O’Connor, D Fitzgerald 0-1. Waterford - P Curran 1-9 (0-6 fs, 0-1 65); J Dillon 1-0; A Gleeson 0-3, S Bennett, J Barron 0-2, K Moran, D Fives, B O’Halloran 0-1.
Clare: P Kelly; J Browne, P O’Connor, C Dillon; C Cleary, B Bugler, D Fitzgerald; D Reidy, C Galvin; D Honan, T Kelly, A Cunningham; P Collins, S O’Donnell, C McGrath.
Subs: C Ryan for Galvin (43 mins); C O’Connell for Collins (54); A Shanagher for O’Donnell (64).
Waterford: S O’Keeffe; S Fives, B Coughlan, N Connors; T de Burca, A Gleeson, Philip Mahony; J Barron, D Fives; K Moran, S Bennett, M Walsh; P Curran, J Dillon, T Devine.
Subs: C Dunford for Devine (45 mins); B O’Halloran for Dillon (57); M Shanahan for Bennett (67); T Ryan for Walsh (71).
Referee: D Kirwan (Cork).