Tuesday 12 December 2017

Davy Fitz's trump card lifts Banner to new high

O'Donnell's display the highlight of a truly memorable final, says Dermot Crowe

Clare captain Patrick Donnellan raises the Liam MacCarthy last night. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Clare captain Patrick Donnellan raises the Liam MacCarthy last night. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Dermot Crowe

There are epic hurling matches that push players and spectators to the limits of the adrenaline chain, that ask things of the heart that would have the medical world reaching for the syringe. And then there is this. Over the long and storied history of this wonderful game, has there ever been one quite like it?

Start to finish, it had everything hurling could offer. In the opening moments, Conor Lehane was thieved by Conor McGrath who embarked on a solo run that left Lehane unable to make up the ground. The shot was delivered from an audacious angle and missed the target. But it set the terms of a remarkable evening, the first All-Ireland senior hurling final under lights where the wattage couldn't match the dazzle unfolding on the field. Audacity would be the norm. It led us giddily into the realms of fairytale.

Where do you begin? It is hard not to offer that first acknowledgment and garland to the player of the match, a 19-year-old from Ennis with a blond mop and swagger whose contribution was bold beyond belief. Shane O'Donnell hurled minor for his county last year. He wasn't named in the starting line-up but there is no such thing as a predictable Davy Fitzgerald. Restless to the core he had another trump card, leaving off Darach Honan and opting for O'Donnell, isolating him near the Cork goal on Shane O'Neill. The Corkman is a fighter and a fine hurler and he managed to hurl a fair amount of ball, but he couldn't deal with the young Clare forward.

O'Donnell offered a threat from the floor whereas Honan's was chiefly from the air. Inside 19 minutes he had written his name into the legend of the game with three goals. He would end the match with 3-3. Fantasy stuff. That total is scarcely believable but it is there, indelibly marked in the narrative of a sensational match. If the drawn game was a terrific contest that went right to the death, sent to a replay by Domhnall O'Donovan's last-gasp strike, this simply took the combatants to another sphere.

To round off the drama, on came Honan for what seemed a cursory visit. With time almost up and Clare three points to the good, he picked up a ball at the old Canal End, Cusack Stand side, lost it, regained it, brushed past O'Neill and somehow managed to get the sliotar to trickle a fraction over the goal line. That closed a phenomenal day's scoring, Clare's fifth goal to Cork's three. There was a view in circulation in the three weeks leading up to this match that Clare had to reduce the Cork goal count to win. They conceded three again and still found a way. They did it the only way they can, with irrepressible, relentless hurling off the front foot. Cork improved on the drawn match but Clare just improved even more.

They set themselves up the same way, going man-on-man and ditching the sweeper system which had helped engineer the wins over Galway and Limerick, the wins that transformed their season. During those matches they went from being touted as a team for whom an All-Ireland was within their compass in the next couple of years to one capable of winning one now. The decision to go man on man was Fitzgerald's masterstroke, his final shedding of caution – the liberation the team needed.

They remained jumpy at the back and Cork's recognition of that frailty was borne out by them repeatedly resorting to a direct style of hurling. They placed Pa Cronin on the edge of the square where he was marked by Cian Dillon. The tactic worked. In the first half Cronin won a free which Anthony Nash dispatched with a venomous certainty and conviction already seen in the drawn game. He rocketed the ball to the net despite it being placed to the left of centre and Clare packing their goal. All but three of their players crowded the line but the forest of sticks could not stop the flight of the ball.

The early pattern of play was a familiar one: Clare driving forward, taking the game to Cork and the men in red refusing to surrender, finding some way of maintaining an interest and reeling in Clare leads. The entire Cork defence was under siege in the opening quarter, bustled and harassed when in possession. Overworked and out on their feet at times.

Eventually the leaks were sprung. The first O'Donnell goal came after a storming run by Pat Donnellan, some 60 yards. His lay-off to O'Donnell was textbook; the teenager drilled a low ball past Nash and the stadium shook. Clare had the opening two points from John Conlon and O'Donnell but Cork responded, undaunted. Seamus Harnedy lifted a breaking ball and pointed and then Luke O'Farrell picked out Lorcan McLoughlin and the midfielder struck the leveller. O'Donnell's first goal put daylight between the sides and from there until the second half Clare held the lead, by the half-hour mark having an eight-point cushion.

O'Donnell claimed his second goal after 12 minutes when Conor O'Sullivan lost the ball under enormous pressure, Conor McGrath doing the work to set O'Donnell free. Cork were far from dead. Three minutes later, Nash's bullet set their followers wild. Clare's reaction was simply to get up on their feet and start swinging. O'Donnell's third goal was followed by three points to open their biggest lead of eight, but the half ended with a signal of Cork's resilience.

With the wind at their backs, they rolled up the sleeves and Harnedy had his second from play, Cronin added another, needing the help of Hawk-Eye, and Horgan closed with a brace, one from a free. Clare went in 3-9 to 1-11 clear. Who could tell what would come afterwards?

Already Clare's pressure was having a telling effect. William Egan found himself under pressure from Conlon and left the play after 23 minutes, replaced by Stephen White. Conlon's contribution lapsed before a resurrection towards the finish but the second half saw the best of Cork. Tony Kelly sent over a beautiful score but the next five scores were Cork's and after 52 minutes they were level. That amounted to a ratio of 9:1 in points to Cork over the preceding 22 minutes play.

Yet Clare did not wilt. Podge Colllins came into this final with eight points from play in two matches against Cork. This time he was well policed by Brian Murphy and ended up being substituted, held scoreless. Cork struggled in the middle of the field and had to withdraw Daniel Kearney but facing the Clare puck-out they were playing like they sensed destiny was theirs. Stephen O'Donnell made a number of surging runs, setting the standard, and the marquee Clare forwards were listing. Up stepped O'Donnell with a vital point to restore the lead, 53 minutes gone on the clock.

From the next play Conor Lehane looked to have levelled but his shot into the Hill tailed wide. Clare took it as a cue and lifted the siege. Conlon struck another score and McGrath, outstanding in the final quarter, won a free which Colin Ryan converted. Clare led 3-13 to 1-16 and must have smelled victory.

This game did not accept such a pedestrian finale. Nearing the hour a rebounded shot on goal broke to Harnedy, who had a fine match after a great season, and he brushed the ball past Patrick Kelly. Level again. Two minutes later, McGrath, who was impeccable, made some room and moved in on the Cork goal. He had a man on the overlap but took a few more steps and drilled a rising shot into the far top corner beyond Nash. Finally, Clare looked to have some room to breathe. Kelly nailed another majestic score and O'Donnell had his third point, leaving the field soon after to an ovation.

But there was time for more. Nash came forward for a 25-metre free. Clare stacked the goal. He lifted poorly this time and had to strike on the bounce, the ball veered to the side and a flailing Cork hand narrowly failed to meet it.

A Ryan '65' had Clare six ahead entering added time when Stephen Moylan scored Cork's third goal. Could there possibly be more?

But Honan had the final say in a match that finished a wonderful season with its crowning glory.

Sunday Independent

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