Future shines bright as Banner boys come of age in sizzling style
O'Donnell the jewel in Davy's crown as brilliant hat-trick sets Clare on way
THE most generous season in hurling history had one last present to bestow on the 82,276 who were in Croke Park on Saturday evening and the many others who watched it on TV at home and abroad.
All-Ireland SHC final replay - Clare 5-16 Cork 3-16
Just when we thought that Championship 2013 had exhausted its supply of precious stones with a spellbindingly entertaining drawn All-Ireland final, it unearthed the most dazzling gem of all in a replay which will comfortably take its place among the most memorable of encounters.
From a technical viewpoint, some of the defending – especially by Cork – is best categorised as sloppy, but then it was a joyous occasion when the gods of flair and enterprise asserted themselves and were never going to be usurped.
They flourished in the unseasonably warm late September air, taking Clare by the hand and leading them to a land of plenty as they won their fourth All-Ireland title and moved into joint seventh place alongside Galway and Offaly on the honours' list.
Truly, it was a day for heavenly inspiration for Clare, first in Davy Fitzgerald's pre-match decision to start Shane O'Donnell and then in celestial storm whipped up by the 19-year-old Eire Og clubman.
O'Donnell, the man who wasn't supposed to start, but did, scored three goals in the opening 19 minutes, while Darach Honan, the man who was supposed to start but didn't, ensured victory by scoring the final goal in stoppage-time.
He had come in as a sub a few minutes earlier, replacing O'Donnell, who departed the action to an ovation from the thankful Clare supporters.
They had enjoyed one of the truly great All-Ireland final performances, which was delivered by a youngster who didn't even know he was playing until two hours before throw-in.
It's one of several fairytale episodes in a Clare saga which extends back to the appointment of Fitzgerald as manager two years ago.
He worked hard at spreading the word that he was taking over a county which was ranked no higher than 10th and that it would be a case of patience followed by progress.
Now, the Banner is summit-high, the saffron-and-blue flag placed there by a team with an average age of 23 years – that average drops to 21.5 years for the midfield and attack which started on Saturday.
It all points to the brightest of futures for Clare, but, for now, they will enjoy the bountiful fruits of a remarkable season in which they kept their best performance of all for last.
They started the championship as 20/1 fifth All-Ireland favourites behind Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway and Cork; had to rediscover themselves after losing the Munster semi-final to Cork by eight points; and faced so many different challenges over the 140 minutes of final action that their fortitude was tested to the limit.
It held strong, not least when they rescued the situation late in stoppage-time in the drawn final and again on Saturday when a blizzard of Cork points between the 30th and 53rd minutes appeared to have finally sucked all the energy from Clare.
Outscored by 0-9 to 0-1 in that period, Clare's high-yield opening half-hour seemed a distant memory. They had dazzled their way to a 3-9 to 1-7 lead after 26 minutes, all the goals coming from O'Donnell in the sixth, 13th and 20th minutes.
O'Donnell's hat-trick matched Clare's total goal return from their previous six championship and league games with Cork, extending over five years. It was an early example of how Saturday's game had taken on a whole new personality and was not going to conform to established norms.
By the end, Clare had recorded their highest goal tally in the championship since hitting Laois for seven in 2004 and their highest against Cork since scoring nine in a Munster semi-final replay in 1936.
That's the context which wraps itself around this fascinating encounter, which ultimately decided on which direction it would take just past the hour mark.
Clare's response to being hauled level (3-10 to 1-16) at the three-quarter mark was to find a new burst of life which yielded three points, before Seamus Harnedy drew Cork level again with a goal in the 60th minute.
However, Cork seemed to have expended so much energy chasing down Clare's big lead that they had little more to give.
Certainly, Clare were far more fleet-footed than Cork in the final 10 minutes, scoring 1-3 to close on 5-16.
It was four scores less than in the drawn final (Cork scored precisely the same amount again) but, significantly, Clare's yield included five goals, whereas it was points all the way (25) 20 days earlier.
Over the two games, Clare were the better side, even if it was they who had to snatch the equaliser in the drawn game.
They trailed briefly in stoppage-time that day, the only period in which Cork led in either game. In fact, Clare led for 125 of the 140 minutes over the two games, while it was level for 13 minutes and Cork led for only two minutes.
Those two minutes came very close to delivering a 31st All-Ireland title for the Rebels, but once Clare earned a second chance, they restored the momentum which they enjoyed for so long the first day.
The big difference this time was that they decorated it with goals, scoring as many in one game as they had in their previous four against Cork, Limerick, Galway and Wexford. Each was finished expertly, but Jimmy Barry-Murphy will be most unhappy with the standard of defending.
O'Donnell's clever positioning put him in the right place to pick off his early hat-trick, but bad defending played a part too in all three goals.
Conor McGrath was also allowed too much leeway in his run for Clare's match-turning goal in the 62nd minute, while Honan would have expected more robust resistance as he angled his way in from the sideline before bouncing in the last goal in the 72nd minute.
Perhaps, as Barry-Murphy suggested afterwards, Cork used so much energy chasing the game that they had no more to give.
But then credit must go to Clare for raising the demand levels so high that they eventually squeezed the resistance from Cork. Clare deserve marks too for holding their nerve after Cork drew level at the three-quarter point.
With the flow of the game going the Leesiders' way in what appeared to be a relentless red tide, Clare were also facing the weight of tradition and history against a county with a huge All-Ireland pedigree.
However, Clare refused to buckle and instead summoned renewed strength to complete the final leg of the great adventure.
"They are good kids. They are honest kids. They never give up," said Davy Fitz. He's wrong on one point. They are no longer kids, but real men who have empowered their native county in a way the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric generators never could.
Scorers – Clare: S O'Donnell 3-3, Colin Ryan 0-7 (6fs, 1 '65'), C McGrath 1-1, D Honan 1-0, T Kelly 0-3, J Conlon 0-2. Cork: P Horgan 0-9 (7fs), S Harnedy 1-2, S Moylan 1-1, A Nash 1-0 (pen), C Lehane 0-2, L McLoughlin, P Cronin 0-1 each.
Clare – P Kelly; D O'Donovan, D McInerney, C Dillon; P O'Connor, B Bugler, Conor Ryan; C Gavin, P Donnellan; J Conlon, T Kelly, Colin Ryan; P Collins, S O'Donnell, C McGrath. Subs: C McInerney for Galvin (52), N O'Connell for Collins (59), D Honan for O'Donnell (66), S Morey for Kelly (71).
Cork – A Nash; B Murphy, S O'Neill, C O'Sullivan; C Joyce, S McDonnell, W Egan; L McLoughlin, D Kearney; S Harnedy, C McCarthy, P Cronin; L O'Farrell, P Horgan, C Lehane. Subs: S White for Egan (23), S Moylan for O'Farrell (h-t), T Kenny for Kearney (38), C Naughton for McCarthy (55), K Murphy for McDonnell (67).
Ref – J McGrath (Westmeath)