'It's the stuff of dreams since you were five or six, first picking up a hurley' - Shane O'Donnell
Hat-trick hero O'Donnell repays Fitz's faith with game of a lifetime
FOR the nervous kid who shook the world, there was no stepping-stone to a seat with the gods. No countdown, no drum-roll, no rumbling sense of ceremony. Shane O'Donnell was just standing with a plate of food in St Patrick's College on Saturday afternoon when Davy Fitz called him aside with news that always carried the potential to blow fuses in his head.
"We're starting you instead of Darach ... "
It was two hours and 10 minutes before throw-in and, for the 19-year-old UCC genetics student, timing would be his saviour. He has the name for being a highly strung thoroughbred, prone to foaming up with nerves. So Davy applied the mental equivalence of blinkers.
"In hindsight, it made it easier because I slept great last night," he smiled afterwards, every sentence entwined with giggles. "I got up this morning thinking: 'I can't wait for my chance to get on...' kind of thing. So it (being told) was close enough to the game that I wasn't too nervous, I wasn't getting tight about it. I was just excited to get out.
"It worked brilliantly."
And Davy's game instruction?
"He just said: 'Do what you always do'," grinned the boy who'd mown Cork down. "And that's go for goals!"
Long, long after the madness had abated, he'd slipped back out into the maw of a now empty stadium with Darach Honan by his side, the pair of them sitting down on a field of golden streamers, their grinning faces drawn skyward like two brothers at an air show.
And the most beautiful thing was that we pretty much shared their awe, almost to the last molecule.
Because hurling seems untouchable just now. It expresses something unique in us as people that, under a vast, luscious blue sky sequinned with Croker's floodlights, imparted a palpable sense of privilege. The intoxication of the occasion brought recognition from every eye.
What is pride in place if not this? What is a sense of belonging? Maybe the greatest hurling final ever played suddenly tugged at all the silent, inarticulate energies that define, but so rarely get to express, our sense of identity.
Clare and Cork settled a coruscating championship with a game that burst its seams almost instantly and, from there to the conclusion, burned an ungovernable path.
The elegant heroism of Jimmy Barry-Murphy's men was, eventually, subdued by an uncontainable Clare team cut, it seemed, from Davy Fitz's own DNA. But, for more than an hour, it was a game that simply flew beyond our reach or understanding.
Hurling's greatest summer thus gave one final, gorgeous pirouette.
And the simplicity of it was the beauty. O'Donnell, 'a townie' in the GAA lexicon of rural Irish heroes, lived a day that it would have been fanciful to dream. And as he stood by the dressing-door after, courteous and articulate and so disarmingly open to strangers – talking down his first two goals as gifts bequeathed him "on a plate" – you had to feel there was no better life on this earth than one shaped by the rhythms of days like this.
As Davy Fitz slumped, face-first to the grass – Clare's first crown in 16 years secured and only their fourth ever – the sky itself seemed to dance in applause.
His call on O'Donnell had been typically nerveless. For three weeks, Davy had been gently mothering his players through the canyon between draw and replay, coaxing little surges just to check the elastic in their legs, but always conscious of a need to keep them fresh.
When O'Donnell was among those called ashore early during the U-21 All-Ireland final rout of Antrim, a few wise heads wondered might it be a signal.
Then a 15 v 15 training match last week and they almost set the grass on fire. "I'd never seen anything like it," Davy told us. In 21 minutes, the 'As' had scored 8-9 against the 'Bs.' He stopped it, his heart almost vaulting through his rib-cage.
This was too soon ...
O'Donnell? "The last few weeks in training have been good to me now," smiled the kid in recall.
"Just the week before the 21s match and, from then on, I've been going well. You just hit a patch of form at the right time and I got put on, thank God.
"I think I scored a couple of goals in that 'A' versus 'B' match. But I can't score points, so I kind of have to go for the goals."
A line, then, to capture the madness of it. Shane O'Donnell, let it be known, that he cannot score points. Some gentle, eccentric kink in his wiring. The three he got on Saturday were breathless aberrations.
Podge Collins confirmed the breaking news.
"If anyone asked me who would you back for first goal, I'd have said Shane O'Donnell," grinned the Cratloe flier. "If you were watching him in training, he's the man. Just unbelievable for goals. He turns his man and thinks about only one thing. I'm more shocked that he got three points than three goals.
"It would be more of his style to get six goals than 3-3!"
These are the pleasant, unabashed kids upon which Davy Fitz looks to be building an empire. He has designed a game that reduces the need for attritional self-sufficiency. Clare play hurling dictated by precision passing and smart movement. One that has taken their people some time to invest in with trust.
When Cork beat them in this year's Munster championship, grumbles suddenly overran the Clare story, one punter angrily tossing a match-programme at Louis Mulqueen with the advice: "That's where you can stick your possession game."
As if the panacea to their troubles might be a few random clearances, ballooned towards the sky.
But Davy held true to his conviction that Clare needed, above all, to hurl with intelligence this year. And, in O'Donnell, he made the final chess move that blew away all doubt.
"If I had a dream last night that I was going to score 3-3, I'd have woken up saying 'That's ridiculous, I'd be happy with one'," chuckled the fresh-faced man of the match. "It really is the stuff of dreams since you were five or six, first picking up a hurley."
He mentioned his clubmates at home collectively, as "a rock" and he spoke of his own maturing, of learning not to just settle for an early score. In 19 star-spangled minutes on Saturday, he scored 3-1, yet did not allow himself a solitary backward glance.
Then the talking ended and the signing began. Long after O'Donnell had exhausted the media, he still stood at the dressing-room door scribbling his name onto anything saffron. The Cork bus squeezed past, expressionless eyes peering out at this teenager who would be tomorrow's back-page headline.
He had his back to them as they passed and, standing in his socks, Shane O'Donnell looked, above all, a tousle-haired boy.
One about to walk out into the lightning storm of a world he would not recognise.