'League throwing teams to wolves'
CLARE 0-31 CORK 2-23 (After extra-time)
It ended with Davy Fitz falling to his knees, a portrait of exhaustion, as Clare finally consigned Cork to second-tier hurling for the first time in almost 20 years.
Davy would insist afterwards that the occasion was rinsed clean of personal emotion given the eternal discord over league structures, yet there could be no denying the sense of his young team beginning to gather authentic momentum here.
They did not make it easy on themselves, shooting an intemperate number of wides (24 was the press box consensus) in the 90 minutes played. But they did, almost always, look the better team.
For Cork, their first relegation since '97 obscures the story of their spring. As selector Kieran Kingston surmised: "We were a puck of a ball away in any of four games. We would still say we had a very good league campaign."
So the kind of wind you expect to blow through Oklahoma had come hollering into Limerick only to be met by a different kind of tempest at the Gaelic Grounds. This might have been the equivalent of a game played under protest, but it grew into something primal and quite epic here.
And it almost required a replay, Cathal Naughton's 90th-minute drive at the city end goal deflected over the bar by a heroic Brendan Bugler intervention.
Cork had leaned too heavily again though on the free-taking of Patrick Horgan and the ball-winning ability of team-captain Pa Cronin.
They lacked discernible shape and authority in attack, even if they looked to have stolen the game through Cronin's kicked 68th-minute goal.
That score put them two points to the good, but a wonderful reply from this judge's man of the match, Tony Kelly, and a free from Colin Ryan took the game into two periods of extra-time during which Clare's half-back line took control.
Kelly would finish the afternoon with six points from play and an abundance of fresh new admirers in the 5,604 attendance.
Yet, he was ably abetted in attack by the likes of John Conlon and Colm Galvin as well as free-taker, Colin Ryan, whose afternoon was a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, his fine tally compromised by the leakage of eight wides.
With the gale at their backs, Cork made the early running, yet their 0-11 to 0-7 half-time lead seemed a poor enough return given the severity of the conditions. Anthony Nash's puck-outs were dropping virtually on the edge of the Clare 'square' but, Cronin apart, Cork lacked the weaponry to take advantage.
That said, they looked to have taken a decisive step towards survival when Luke O'Farrell smashed home a 53rd-minute goal at the second attempt after Kelly parried a stinging Conor Lehane effort. That score put Cork five points clear and team manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy will be concerned by what followed.
For in the 15 minutes between their two goals, Cork were comprehensively outplayed. Clare actually outscored them in that period by 0-10 to 0-1, men like Bugler and team captain Patrick Donnellan hurling magnificently from half-back.
So Cronin materialising on the edge of the 'square' two minutes from the end of normal time to kick past Kelly was an act with a slightly larcenous feel. Defeat and an instant return to Division 1B hurling next year would have been a bitter pill to swallow for Clare. It showed too in the ferocity with which they resisted it.
They won the first period of extra-time 0-4 to 0-2 and had stretched a seemingly decisive four points clear (0-30 to 2-20) with just two minutes of the second period remaining. Luke O'Farrell then blazed a Cork goal chance over and, critically, that incident was instantly followed by a Conlon point at the far end. Whatever Cork threw at them, Clare looked ready to meet in kind.
Hence Bugler's heroic deflection on Naughton's piledriver in the dying seconds and Davy Fitz's subsequent slump to his knees.
"It's a good win. We beat Cork in a relegation play-off – that's it," said Fitzgerald afterwards. And he ventured a view with which, no doubt, Cork would find agreement. The current hurling structure is proving hopelessly elitist.
"I'm still of the same opinion as I was last week" he said. "I feel the National League was rushed through. Four weeks in a row – we played three savage games and then fell flat in our last game. To get up four weeks in a row is hard going and a bit unfair.
"Why not start at the end of January? They're on about interfering with club fixtures – you start the end of January and replace the Waterford Crystal.
"We're all playing matches from the first week of January on – that's what we're doing. End of January and let's go right through to the end of April – it would be the same thing, eight or nine matches, and let's not forget about other teams.
"Being honest, there are a few other teams that we're leaving out of this thing. And we're putting them to the wolves as far as I can see.
"I don't think it's right. I think they'll perform better if they're up against the bigger teams. They might get a few beatings but they will improve. The better the teams you play, the more you're going to improve.
"Why can't the hurling be started earlier? We need to keep working on it, we don't need the same one or two teams always in contention for All-Irelands, we have to try and make teams stronger.
"I'm not saying it as a Clare man. I'm saying it as a hurling person."
Man of the match: T Kelly (Clare)
SCORERS – Clare: Colin Ryan 0-10 (6fs), T Kelly 0-6, J Conlon 0-4, C Galvin 0-3, D Honan, C McGrath 0-2 each, P Collins, C McInerney, F Lynch, P Kelly (f) 0-1 each. Cork: P Horgan 0-11 (7fs), P Cronin 1-3, L O'Farrell 1-2, C Naughton 0-2, C McCarthy, D Kearney, C Lehane, C O'Sullivan, S Moylan 0-1 each.
CLARE – P Kelly 8; D O Donovan 7, D McInerney 8, S Morey 7; B Bugler 8, P Donnellan 9, P O'Connor 7; C Galvin 8, Conor Ryan 6; J Conlon 8, T Kelly 9, Colin Ryan 8; D Honan 8, S O'Donnell 6, P Collins 7. Subs: C McGrath 7 for Conor Ryan (26), P Duggan 7 for Collins (64), C McInerney 7 for O'Donnell (70), J Clancy (not on long enough for rating) for Honan (80), F Lynch for Duggan (84), S O'Donnell for Clancy (90).
CORK – A Nash 8; K Murphy 7, B Murphy 8, C O'Sullivan 8; S White 7, C Joyce 7, W Egan 8; L McLoughlin 7, D Kearney 7; C Lehane 7, P Cronin 9, P O'Sullivan 7; S Moylan 7, L O'Farrell 8, P Horgan 8. Subs: T Kenny 8 for Kearney (53), C McCarthy 7 for Moylan (60), C Spillane 7 for K Murphy (61), C Naughton 7 for White 66), B Hartnett (not on long enough for rating) for P O'Sullivan (85), P O'Brien for Lehane (85).
Ref – J McGrath (Westmeath)
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