Jamesie O'Connor: What-ifs linger but this drama deserves encore
Jamesie O'Connor hails the character and spirit witnessed last Sunday
Heart-attack hurling. Does that aptly describe last Sunday's epic hurling final?
Well, with the clock ticking beyond the two minutes of additional time that Brian Gavin had signalled, either heart failure or heartbreak was imminent for Clare supporters; their side a point behind, and having played most of the hurling.
The draw Domhnall O'Donovan's point secured seconds later somehow seemed a fitting and fair conclusion to what was a truly absorbing contest.
Where to begin? With so much of the pre-match focus centring on how the tactical battle would fare out, it was a brave decision by Davy Fitzgerald not to employ the sweeper system. With the match-ups I believed it could create, I was hoping Clare would go man to man and line out at least initially with an orthodox formation. Because the sweeper had worked so well in the previous two games, though, I felt the Clare management would find it very hard to get away from it. It's to their credit that they rolled the dice, trusted their players were good enough, and it very nearly paid off.
Obviously there's been much talk in Clare since as to whether it was the right thing to do. Without Pat Donnellan acting as a sentinel in front of the full-back line, Clare's last line of defence did find itself exposed in the second half. The three goals Cork scored kept them in a match that they really had no right to be in. However, you could see what Clare were trying to do. With Podge Collins and Conor McGrath drifting out the field, there were definitely occasions, particularly in the first half, when Clare managed to get Darach Honan one on one with Shane O'Neill in the type of space the big man should have thrived on. O'Neill deserves huge credit for the way he handled the threat Honan presented. Clare's full-forward looked out of sorts and had a poor game overall, much of that can be attributed to how tightly O'Neill marked him.
Admittedly, the Cork full-back dodged a bullet when he could very easily have been red-carded. Honan may very well have got the first dig in but O'Neill did swing high in response and made contact with the back of Honan's head. It was reckless and Brian Gavin would really have had no other option than to issue a red card had he witnessed it. Because the referee didn't see it, he had to rely on the word of his umpires.
Where Clare are entitled to have a beef with the referee is in relation to the two decisions he got wrong in the 25th and 30th minutes. The first of those, with Clare four points ahead, when he penalised David McInerney for over-carrying was a bad call. McInerney had been clearly fouled, twice, and Clare were right to feel aggrieved. The second incident, when Lorcan McLoughlin charged straight into Colin Ryan under the Hogan Stand minutes later, was equally severe. With Patrick Horgan's accuracy from placed balls, those frees were critical in enabling Cork to hang on to Clare's coat-tails, and it was hard to believe they went in at the break only two behind.
However, Cork are entitled to a couple of grievances of their own. Patrick Kelly clearly encroached on Anthony Nash's 21-yard free 18 minutes into the match, and Gavin should have ordered it to be retaken.
More pertinently, Cork can argue that the ball left O'Donovan's hurley for the equalising score 23 seconds after the two minutes of additional time signalled had elapsed, and the final whistle should have been blown when Patrick Kelly pucked out the ball.
To counter that (as former football referee John Bannon rightly pointed out in Monday's Irish Examiner), Cork had two line balls in stoppage time, which took a combined 61 seconds to take, so Gavin was right to at least allow Clare one final play.
I think Gavin is a good referee. In my opinion, he understands the game. While no one knows better than the man himself that his display wasn't flawless, there's been far too much focus on the few mistakes he did make at the expense of all the magic we saw on the field.
Some of the scores, especially in that phenomenal second half, were breathtaking. The finishes Conor Lehane and Pa Cronin supplied for their goals were sublime, while the points scored by Conor Ryan and Podge Collins in the second half were as good as any ever scored in Croke Park. Special place should be reserved in that same pantheon for the final two scores.
The skill, control and accuracy that Patrick Horgan showed to put Cork ahead for the first time in the match, in the 71st minute, with Brendan Bugler hanging out of him, was special. Pure class, and it would have been a winning score to match anything in the game's history.
However, to have a corner-back do what O'Donovan did – show the fitness, willpower and presence of mind to firstly run 80 yards to give his goalie another option, and then have the composure to do what he did and bisect the posts, was extraordinary. What those men did showed character beyond belief and hats off to them, and all who made last Sunday the spectacle it was.
Coming out of Croke Park after the drawn final 12 months ago, there was a definite sense that the balance of power had shifted Kilkenny's way. There was no sense leaving last Sunday that either side has an obvious advantage going into the replay.
For Clare to hit 25 points in the biggest game of their lives, play as well as they did and still not win meant there was a certain amount of frustration amongst those close to the team. Yet, the character and resilience they showed to respond after the three hammer blows Cork struck, and secure the draw when the cause looked lost, was enormously positive.
Cork, if anything, looked the more dejected and disappointed side coming off the field. Yet, when they analyse it, to play as poorly as they did, and still come so close to snatching the most unlikely of victories, shows their resolve and character.
Thankfully, there are only 13 sleeps left to the replay.
Finally, and on a much more sombre note, I only learned of the tragic passing of Barry Kelly's wife Catherine last week on Saturday night from Anthony Daly. It puts things into perspective very quickly and I know I speak for all hurling people when offering my deepest sympathies to Barry, his young twins and all of Catherine's family and friends.