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Jamesie O'Connor: Clare have reached the summit earlier than expected


Clare’s hat-trick hero Shane O'Donnell scores his first goal early in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: David Conachy.

Clare’s hat-trick hero Shane O'Donnell scores his first goal early in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: David Conachy.

Clare’s hat-trick hero Shane O'Donnell scores his first goal early in yesterday’s All-Ireland hurling final replay at Croke Park. Photo: David Conachy.

I may be a romantic at heart, but I felt that given the incredible hurling season we've just had it couldn't end with one of the traditional powers coming out with the silverware at the end of it. With the way Clare finished the year I think the consensus now is that the best team in the country came out on top.

They made their supporters sweat for it though and Cork deserve massive credit for the way they kept coming back. Ultimately, the better hurling team won.

The big talking point beforehand was Davy Fitzgerald's decision to start Shane O'Donnell in place of Darach Honan. What a decision it proved to be, as Clare got off to a dream start with 1-4 on the board inside the opening seven minutes.

O'Donnell was an inspired choice and had 2-1 in the bag inside 12 minutes. Great credit goes to the management for picking him in the first place, it was Roy of The Rovers stuff when he bagged his third goal eight minutes later.

His first goal was especially impressive, Pa Donnellan ran almost 80 yards before passing it off to the Eire Og man who buried it like a seasoned pro. Conor McGrath did great work to set him up for his second and by the time the opportunity came to take the third one O'Donnell looked like scoring goals in All-Ireland finals was something he did every day.

Overall in the first half Clare were having the better of it around most of the field but they were working hard for it. Their work-rate, effort, energy and intensity was far superior. When Clare were six points up after 16 minutes Cork were handed a lifeline when Cian Dillon was harshly penalised by James McGrath for a foul on Pa Cronin. Nash buried the resulting free and there were shades of the drawn match when, despite having done all the hurling, Clare were only three clear.

In fairness to Clare, as in the drawn match, they reacted brilliantly, hitting a point straight away and 10 minutes later they were eight clear. However from here to the break Cork had the better of it, Clare gave away some cheap scores, and with the Cork half-back line getting on top I was thinking that half-time couldn't come quickly enough for Clare.

To go in four up was probably a poor reflection of how well they played, but Cork deserve a lot of credit for their response in hitting the last four scores of that first half.

The first 10 minutes of the second half was always going to be be vital and despite Tony Kelly hitting the first score, Cork picked up where they left off – though they had to expend huge energy to reel Clare in.

With Pa Horgan's free levelling it in the 52nd minute, the next score was always going to be crucial. The man of the match O'Donnell delivered it and I had a feeling that Clare, who were always going to have a period of dominance themselves, had weathered the Cork storm. Yet despite going three ahead, Seamus Harnedy's goal was another hammer blow, once more drawing Cork level. As they have done all year though, Clare found a response and the game was effectively decided inside the next three minutes.

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McGrath, who was immense all afternoon, torched through the Cork defence but with the luxury of O'Donnell inside him elected to shoot himself. The finish was sublime and Anthony Nash had no chance. Seconds later Kelly, liberated by the open spaces in midfield, followed up with a real beauty of a score. And it was only then you felt that the decisive blow had been struck. Stephen Moylan and Honan traded goals in injury-time to round off what was a crazy second half.

While JBM will concede that Clare were the better side, he will be hugely proud of what his players gave him. Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy and Conor O'Sullivan delivered huge performances in the second half.

The energy that this Clare side brings takes a ferocious physical toll but the Cork players ran themselves into the ground for the cause. Lehane and Harnedy kept taking the fight to Clare and with Horgan unerringly accurate from frees, Cork were always in the game.

However the fact they never got their noses in front was crucial for Clare. And Davy Fitz's side, as they did in the drawn match, always seemed to be able to summon a response even when the pendulum of the match might have been swinging Cork's way.

Personally I'm thrilled for all of the players, backroom staff and Davy himself. In particular Pat Donnellan and Brendan Bugler gave massive leadership and for those guys and fellas such as Jonathan Clancy and Fergal Lynch on the bench, who have given great service over the years, it has made all the sacrifices worthwhile.

Earlier this year myself and Bugler were heading to a Munster training session and I remarked to him that I felt we were still a couple of years away from being able to really compete with the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary. He disagreed with me and said, "Jamesie I don't think so". He's been proved right and never have I been happier to admit how wrong I was.

With the age profile of this squad the future is obviously massively bright. I felt beforehand that if they won today they would have the capability to win two or three more. However after all they put into it, a defeat would have been very hard to pick themselves up from. Thankfully from a Clare perspective it is Cork who end the year with nothing to show for the colossal efforts the players and back-room team expended.

One of the unfortunate by-products of Kilkenny's hegemony over the last decade has been how hope has been extinguished in the likes of Offaly, Wexford and Laois. Clare's victory goes a long way towards restoring that hope in the so-called weaker counties. Limerick, Dublin, Waterford and Galway will all feel they're not a million miles away and Clare have shown that if the work is done anything is possible.

Finally, it's hard to believe that the hurling year gave us what it did, especially with the old order contesting the league final back in April. They will be back in 2014 but on a far more level playing pitch. Roll on 2014.

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