Blissful summer ends in heaven
Banner finally take crown their majesty so clearly deserved, writes Eamonn Sweeney
It's extremely bizarre to think that had Brian Gavin been a bit hastier with the final whistle in the drawn match, Cork would have been this year's All-Ireland hurling champions.
Bizarre because for most of the 140-odd minutes of the saga, Clare were so clearly the superior team it always looked just a matter of time before they shook off the Rebels. And bizarre because had the final been resolved first time out Shane O'Donnell would have exited 2013 as nothing more than a promising teenage hurler predicted to do great things in the future.
Instead, shrewdly given his chance in the replay by Davy Fitzgerald, who got all the big calls right, O'Donnell decided to do great things in the here and now and equalled the final hat-trick record of Eddie O'Brien and Lar Corbett inside the first quarter.
There was a Kilkenny-type ruthlessness about the Banner as they carved open those opportunities for the 19-year-old, all of them deriving from situations where a less ambitious team might have sent over a point and been congratulated for taking the 'wise option'. But their determination to inflict maximum punishment spelled out a fundamental truth about this replay. Clare are a better team than Cork. Clare knew it and perhaps Cork knew it too.
Predictions that the Rebels would sneak the replay were founded on superstition based on tradition. But the Banner team is made up of players who year in year out have been beating Cork at underage level and beating them well. Cork held no fear for these players because they know tomorrow belongs to them.
Make no mistake about it, 2013 might have been a strange topsy-turvy championship year, but normal service in the shape of Kilkenny dominance is not going to be resumed from here on in. You have to go back a long time to find such a prodigiously talented collection of young players as Clare have assembled this year. It beggars belief to think that the likes of O'Donnell, Tony Kelly, David McInerney, Colm Galvin and Podge Collins are still under 21 this year and that Pat O'Connor, Conor Ryan and Conor McGrath played in the grade last year. There will be other All-Ireland titles, and a few of them, for this group.
The future looks slightly bleaker for Cork. That they came so close to winning a title this year when so comprehensively outgunned was a minor miracle of management and fighting spirit, but it's doubtful if the stars will align quite so propitiously for this group of players again. They did not wilt after the early onslaught, something which owed a great deal to their character but not a little to a few generous refereeing decisions which suggested that just because Davy Fitz can seem paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get him. They need to clone Anthony Nash whose influence in the two games was remarkable for a goalkeeper. Between him and Stephen Cluxton it's been the year of the goalie.
But more than that it's been the year of the Banner. When Dublin and Limerick were grabbing the headlines Clare were getting hammered by Cork and struggling past Wexford. They were to an extent the dog which didn't bark at that stage of the championship. But once they found their feet they looked far and away the most accomplished team in the country.
Suggestions before the drawn game that it would be a tight tactical affair came about because there's a tendency to underestimate Clare, to think that they're all about passion, grit and graft as opposed to the more classical virtues. But we had two superb open games of attacking hurling because this particular group of players are every bit as capable of playing in the grand style as the big three.
They're not short of the more basic virtues either. Talented as these tyros are, they must have been spooked when Cork, so often on the edge of apparent annihilation, refused to go away and stormed back into the game during the third quarter as they whittled away at an eight-point lead which had appeared insurmountable at one stage. Clare swayed and bent but did not break. Conor McGrath's magnificent solo goal and the Tony Kelly point which followed were irresistible statements of intent.
They did not deserve to be pegged back again. After an injury-time goal had given West Germany a draw in normal time in the 1966 World Cup final Alf Ramsey told his team, "You've won it once, now go and win it again". They did so and prevailed in extra-time. Chances are that Davy Fitzgerald said something similar to his troops yesterday.
They obliged and are the fitting winners of a championship which had everything. Years from now we'll tell our kids and grandkids of summer 2013 and as we tell it we'll hardly be able to believe it ourselves.
Bliss it was to be alive this year, but to be from Clare was very heaven.