Clare warriors defy premature epitaphs
CLARE 4-14 WATERFORD 0-21 All-Ireland SHC qualifier MOMENTOUS stirrings in Ennis, the revisionists left gasping for breath as the Clare hurlers finally brought their sunshine to the championship.
And, irony of ironies, we got Munster combat at its elemental best in the neutral context of a qualifier. Just under 15 months ago, Anthony Daly dipping his toes into the management game, walked straight into a 19-point humiliation against Waterford at Semple Stadium. This was pay-back.
All that shirt-tugging hubris come back to haunt Waterford, their full-back line torn asunder to the consternation of those in a 20,000-plus crowd who viewed them as serious contenders for Liam McCarthy.
Defeat spoons them into a difficult All-Ireland quarter-final against Munster champions Cork, while victory rewards Clare with what looks a less daunting shot at Wexford.
"Yerra, we're top of the ground horses," chuckled Daly by the showers afterwards. The Clare boss glowed with vindication. All the old Banner Gods had been to the fore in Cusack Park, belittling the obituaries and lamentations that followed their Munster loss to Tipperary.
"You saw the warriors we had again here," said Daly. "Davy Fitz, Lynch, McMahon, the two Lohans. Those fellas will never drop the head. I think they were written off too soon earlier in the year. We saw it out there today in blistering heat how they could last.
"Sometimes, the game goes against you and everyone blames your legs. Maybe Michael Webster was a good player the first day. Give credit where credit's due. But we're not inclined to . . . "
It was a staunch and, to be fair, worthy defence of his full-back, Brian Lohan, who had a splendid game as the red-helmeted totem, guarding the route to Clare's goal.
But Clare had heroes throughout the field, from Davy Fitz whose stunning sixth minute save from Eoin Kelly set the template for Banner defiance, to Alan Markham whose two goals signalled a kind of personal rehabilitation.
Waterford looked edgy from the outset, county secretary Seamus Grant having to virtually beseech the players to take their place in the parade, Clare already half way around the pitch in the slipstream of the band.
Yet, leading 0-9 to 0-6 after 28 minutes, there was little hint of crisis in the Decies' camp. That was when the walls caved in.
First, Diarmuid McMahon pilfered a ball that Eoin Murphy had time to clear and sheer persistence carried the Kilmaley man in, virtually along the end-line, before he crashed the ball past Stephen Brenner.
Two minutes later, Niall Gilligan's brilliant flick set Markham galloping into an open prairie and, though the shot was venomous, Brenner could not have been happy that it beat him (the goalkeeper threw his hurley into the net after it, presumably as a kind of self-assessment).
Approaching half-time, Paul Flynn drilled a 20-metre free wide of the Clare goal, allowing Daly's men take their tea with an improbable three-point cushion (2-6 to 0-9). The Banner boss stood at the entrance to the tunnel, dispensing sparky evocations as his men trooped in.
"It's all about the mental side," he would observe later. "An awful lot of our players needed to deliver. A few of them in their mid-twenties have to stand up and start delivering for Clare. That said, we weren't far off against Tipperary.
"The difference today was that we got the goals. We needed a break. What's being overlooked is that we missed something like 5-8 against Tipp, four open goal chances. You can't do that in the Munster championship."
Brenner redeemed himself a mite just after the resumption, parrying brilliantly from Diarmuid McMahon. But the sliotar went straight to McMahon again and he promptly stretched Clare's lead to four.
Dan Shanahan, Michael Walsh and John Mullane were carrying the fight for Waterford, but other marquee names struggled to get to the pace of the game.
Paul Flynn couldn't escape the clutches of Frank Lohan, no matter where he strode in the meadow. Ken McGrath seemed to be getting by-passed in midfield. Eoin Kelly was just dipping in and out of the narrative.
Yet, Waterford drew level after a little shell-burst of points from Shanahan, Mullane, Walsh and Ken McGrath, the latter a glorious, first-time score from close to the half-way line. That should have been a launch pad. Instead, it prefaced an implosion.
Gilligan (two) and Tony Griffin responded with points for Clare and, then, calamity for Waterford. Brenner's puck-out was fielded by Diarmuid McMahon and the 'keeper seemed glued to his line as McMahon's high delivery was flicked home by an unchallenged Griffin. Suddenly, Clare were six ahead and steaming for the line.
Two Flynn frees pulled Waterford closer but their day plunged deeper into crisis in the 51st minute when, after a Flynn free drifted wide, Eoin McGrath and Gerry O'Grady went to ground at an umpire's feet and the Waterford man seemed to swing his hurley into O'Grady's, em, abdomen. McGrath got the line.
Still, Waterford were breathing. With four minutes remaining, the game was not yet beyond them, Clare leading by two points (3-13 to 0-20). Then a Conor Plunkett clearance and Markham's pace seemed to catch the entire Waterford full-back line a stupor. He momentarily lost control of the sliotar, but then swung first-time to beat Brenner with an unstoppable ground-shot. Game over.
There was time for Davy Fitz to save brilliantly from a Ken McGrath 20-metre free in the 67th minute but, by now, Waterford supporters were spilling out of the ground.
"Today was a good day for Clare," said Daly. "We needed a scalp. We needed that oul lift. But we won't be running away with ourselves."
SCORERS - Clare: N Gilligan 0-6 (5f), A Markham 2-0, T Griffin 1-2, D McMahon 1-1, S McMahon 0-2 (1 '65'), B O'Connell, F Lohan, D O'Rourke 0-1 each. Waterford: K McGrath 0-5 (4f), J Mullane 0-4, P Flynn 0-4 (4f), D Shanahan 0-3, E Kelly 0-2, T Browne, M Walsh, E McGrath 0-1 each.
TEAMS AND PLAYER RATINGS:
CLARE - D Fitzgerald 9; G O'Grady 8, B Lohan 8, F Lohan 8; D Hoey 7, S McMahon 9, G Quinn 7; B O'Connell 7, C Lynch 8; D McMahon 7, T Carmody 6, A Markham 8; A Quinn 5, N Gilligan 7, T Griffin 8. Subs: D Forde 4 for A Quinn (ht), D O'Rourke 7 for Forde (58), C Plunkett for Hoey (65), D O'Connell for Carmody (69), B Lynch for O'Connell (70).
WATERFORD - S Brenner 5; T Feeney 6, F Hartley 7, E Murphy 6; T Browne 7, J Murray 7, B Phelan 6; K McGrath 7, M Walsh 8; D Shanahan 8, E Kelly 7, E McGrath 5; J Mullane 8, S Prendergast 5, P Flynn 6. Sub: P O'Brien 6 for Prendergast (60).
REF - M Haverty (Galway).