Banner's irresistible rise too hot for Galway
Fitzgerald's youngsters reveal title potential with mature dismissal of ragged neighbours
In the same Semple Stadium tunnel on the last Sunday in March, Davy Fitzgerald delivered a little cuff on the ear to those in Clare who were proclaiming the potential of their emerging young team to win an All-Ireland title.
All-Ireland SHC quarter-final
Clare 1-23 Galway 2-14
They had just lost to a hardened Tipperary in the last round of the league, condemning them to a Division 1 relegation play-off against Cork that they would eventually win.
Davy pronounced the result a good thing because maybe, he ventured, it might stem the flow of "rubbish" being spoken about the team back home.
Yet here he was leaning against the same wall discussing his team's progression in a championship where no once can dare suggest a winner with any great certainty.
Clare are very much in the mix. The lack of uniformity in the betting markets suggests that the "rubbish" he spoke of in March may in fact be reality. Why can't they win an All-Ireland from here from a pool that no longer contains the three main pre-season protagonists?
They have ticked all the necessary boxes this season – stayed in Division 1, won a Munster championship game for the first time in five years and have now returned to the All-Ireland semi-finals after a six-year absence with a team averaging just over 23 in age, most laden with All-Ireland U-21 medals. They know how to win big games – here was real evidence of that. If they are good enough, youth won't come in to it.
Fitzgerald will know the scope for improvement there is with each passing game. And the constraint in his appraisal of that scope could be quietly detected.
Even when a Galway team that has malfunctioned for most of the season pounced for two opportunist goals courtesy of defensive errors in the second half, Clare comfortably held their nerve to see out the finish.
For Galway, it is yet another annus horribilis that follows an All-Ireland final appearance. No other team does second-season syndrome like them.
This was their fifth All-Ireland quarter-final defeat in succession. Each of their last three All-Ireland final appearances – in 2001, 2005 and 2012 – has now been followed by quarter-final defeats the following year, to Clare twice and Kilkenny.
A step forward is invariably followed by two steps back and this has pitched them a considerable distance back, surely compounded by the absence of Kilkenny and Tipperary in the remaining stages. The sense of lost opportunity for a team that came so close in 2012 will be palpable. This has been a season to forget.
So many of their top performers last year have struggled to make any impact in 2013. Form has deserted young men like Niall and David Burke and more seasoned hands like Iarla Tannian, Andy Smith and Damien Hayes to an alarming degree. Hayes pilfered three fine points here as he recovered some brio, but so much of the dash and mischief that marked their 2012 game was missing.
With Joe Canning out of touch here, missing five of his 11 shots from frees and '65s', the malaise spread through the team like a virus.
They made six changes in personnel from the Leinster final but couldn't find a rhythm to get a proper foothold.
Clare deployed their listed centre-back Patrick Donnellan as a sweeper behind Conor Ryan, who came into the named team for Peter Duggan and picked up Galway centre-forward Jonathan Glynn.
The tactic helped to curtail Canning and forced a switch in strategy to working the ball much shorter which brought better results after the break.
Galway also retained their free man Jason Grealish in a sweeping role and he hurled a lot of ball, but through the pace of Padraic Collins and the aerial power of Darach Honan, Clare were able to work ball into their forwards past the sweeper with much more penetration.
With Colm Galvin, who produced so many creative touches and Colin Ryan on top against a variety of Galway midfield pairings – both starting midfielders were replaced – they had a decisive edge. Ryan finished the game with 0-10, including two points from play, and produced a succession of driving runs.
Once Conor McGrath slipped past Kevin Hynes after taking a Tony Kelly delivery and shortened his grip to beat Colm Callanan in the 23rd minute for a 1-8 to 0-6 lead, Clare were always in the driving seat. Collins had hit thee successive points in the eight minutes before McGrath struck as they gained an upper hand through the precision of their play. By the break, they were 1-12 to 0-8 clear as Galway replaced Smith, Johnny Coen and Conor Cooney.
When Canning struck a post and was wide with successive frees early in the third quarter, Galway's troubles were compounded, but they were thrown a lifeline when a Glynn shot from a tight angle crept in under Patrick Kelly, who looked to have everything covered at his near post. It was a stroke of fortune for Galway and when sub Cyril Donnellan pushed forward for a point, the gap was down to three points, 1-14 to 1-11.
Honan and Brendan Bugler eased the pressure with points and then Canning missed again from a free, prompting David Burke to take over free-taking duties, but not before Ryan from a free and Kelly had pushed Clare seven clear, 1-18 to 1-11.
Galway got another break, however, when Domhnall O'Donovan's misplaced clearance from the hand fell short into a grateful Canning and he teed up Niall Healy, only on the field, for a stunning goal. Joseph Cooney added a point and a two-point margin left Galway in perfect range.
But again the response from Clare was mature and patient. Collins batted over a fourth point and substitute Fergal Lynch and Nicky O'Connell poured in for scores that ultimately put it beyond Galway's reach.
Scorers – Clare: Colin Ryan 0-10 (8fs), C McGrath 1-2, P Collins 0-4, J Conlon, T Kelly, P O'Connor, D Honan, N O'Connell, F Lynch, B Bugler 0-1 each. Galway: J Canning 0-7 (5fs, 1 '65'), D Hayes 0-3, J Glynn, N Healy 1-0 each, A Harte, D Burke (f), C Donnellan, J Cooney 0-1 each.
Clare – P Kelly 7; D O'Donovan 7, D McInerney 7, C Dillon 7; B Bugler 7, P Donnellan 7, P O'Connor 8; C Galvin 8, Colin Ryan 8; J Conlon 6, T Kelly 6, Conor Ryan 7; C McGrath 8, D Honan 7, P Collins 8. Subs: F Lynch 6 for Conlon (54), N O'Connell for Kelly (63), S Morey for Honan (63), C McInerney for McGrath (68).
Galway – C Callanan 7; K Hynes 6, F Moore 7, J Coen 6; S Kavanagh 6, D Collins 7, J Grealish 7; A Harte 6, A Smith 5; D Burke 6, J Glynn 6, C Cooney 5; N Burke 5, J Canning 6, D Hayes 7. Subs: J Cooney 6 for Coen (h-t), D Glennon 5 for Cooney (h-t), I Tannian 6 for Smith (h-t), C Donnellan 6 for N Burke (47), N Healy 7 for Harte (59).
Ref – B Gavin (Offaly)