Saturday 25 January 2020

Underdogs off leash at last

The most dramatic hurling summer of all had a fitting finale, writes Damian Lawlor

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald celebrating after winning the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald celebrating after winning the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship

Damian Lawlor

At the start of the year, Davy Fitzgerald walked into the Clare dressing room with a folder under his arm containing six game plans.

"A plan for every scenario," recalls selector Louis Mulqueen. "People in the media and public have this image of Davy and they like to hang onto it, but all I see is a meticulous young manager who has moulded a family together with a tactic in the bag for every twist or turn."

By the end of the year, Fitzgerald had deployed four of his methods, the seventh defender, the out-and-out sweeper, the man-marker and in the All-Ireland finals, surprisingly, he utilised his space tactic when he was expected to pack his defence.

Little wonder, then, that Clare were so unpredictable this season. Even those behind the scenes were taken aback at how quickly they reached their end goal.

"We are ahead of time but there were a couple of occasions during the year when things started to click and you said to yourself, 'Jaysus, we could do something here'," Mulqueen says. "The way we fought back against Wexford, how we started against Limerick and the ultra-relaxed approach adopted for both All-Ireland finals. These lads don't do nerves. That always gives you a shot."

Before every game, the Clare players assemble in the car park at Cratloe GAA club and to kill time and sharpen their touch, they play 'Keepy Uppy'. One touch, no hand, and on to a team-mate. A missed strike, or a refusal to bat, and you're gone. It relaxes everyone and usually results in fits of laughter.

Last Saturday night, as they walked the pitch before the replay, Mulqueen tugged Fitzgerald's sleeve and told him to look over at the players. "They were doing it again," he laughed. "Keepy Uppies in the middle of Croke Park and they howling laughing with the biggest game of their lives minutes away. We just scratched our heads and walked away. You knew they were ready."

They went on to finally close the curtain on an epic hurling season in enthralling fashion. Maybe it was always destined to be a summer to take the breath away.

"All things considered, this always held the potential of being one of the best championships ever, despite the fact that few pundits looked past Kilkenny or Tipp," says former All-Ireland winner Tom Dempsey. "Dublin claiming the Leinster title was huge, Limerick winning their first provincial crown since 1996 was massive and the sea of green at the Gaelic Grounds after that game was one of the finest sights of the summer."

The bookies certainly didn't bother glancing far past them anyway. Last May, they priced the race for the 2013 Liam MacCarthy Cup as: Kilkenny 4/5, Tipperary 13/5 and Galway 5/1.

Clare, with an average age of just under 22, upset the odds though to claim the county's fourth All-Ireland senior title. Once the Banner, blissfully unaware of the hurt and baggage that went before them, found their confidence levels they looked formidable. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that the future belonged to those who believed in the beauty of their dreams and Clare's half-forward John Conlon backs up this theory.

"A big thing in Clare was that when we first started out we might have been a bit frightened, but lads are getting it in their heads now that they can believe in their abilities," Conlon says. "People say we should fear these Cork jerseys, fear these Tipperary and Kilkenny jerseys, but we have come on a run now, we are All-Ireland champions and why should we fear anyone? It is about going out, responding, cherishing this and driving on for the next few years."

Mulqueen highlights the end of normal time in their entertaining qualifier clash with Wexford as a turning point in their season. "We'd been out of sight and in the end we were hanging on," he recalls. "There could have been chaos in the dressing room but that's the night that Davy pulled it out of the fire. He gathered the team in a huddle, told them that everything they stood for was on the line and asked them were they really going to bow out like this. He warned them that their promise may never be fulfilled if they lost to Wexford and asked them to go out and rectify the situation. It was so calm. Within five minutes we were well ahead again. We never looked back. So much of our fate in the years ahead depended on what we did that night against Wexford. We didn't have many concerns after that. In fact, we were almost going too well in the lead up to the final."

In many ways, for all their gallantry and manliness, it would have been a shame had a traditional power like Cork taken the ultimate honours this season. For it was, quite simply, a year for the underdog; the seeds of which were sewn early in summer when Carlow almost pulled off the shock of the century by beating Wexford.

Laois, too, gave Galway the fright of their lives in the Leinster semi-final. Cork beat Clare, Limerick beat Tipp and Dublin put Kilkenny on the ropes and knocked them out at the second time of asking. At a packed and choreographed Nowlan Park, Kilkenny knocked their arch rivals Tipp out of the championship. A week later, Brian Cody's men were taken to the well by Waterford who should have buried them in extra-time. But they didn't and in an epic, defiant last stand Kilkenny, war-worn and ravaged with injury, rose from the ashes and roared defiance in the face of adversity.

Had Waterford won, Michael Ryan would have been assured of the Waterford job – and possibly a statue in his honour – for another three years. Ultimately, though, that one-point loss cost him and the whole affair left a nasty tang in the south-east over the manner of his removal from the post. The intensity of games went up a notch too. Wing-forwards and wing-backs clocked up in the region of 7.5km per match, an incredible stat for the game of hurling. In some cases, players were frothing with exhaustion after just 20 minutes and yet maintained exalted performance levels for 70 minutes. The galleries applauded, mesmerised, half-shocked, enthralled.

The drama seeped down into underage as 2013 became the first year that Cork and Tipperary didn't claim at least one of the Munster minor, under 21 or senior hurling titles. Instead, Waterford reached their first All-Ireland minor final since 1992 and beat Galway in the decider. At under 21 level, Clare put on a year-long exhibition while Wexford shocked Kilkenny and then were shocked by Antrim in the All-Ireland semi-final.

As the replayed senior final loomed, Darach Honan didn't train much but management had Shane O'Donnell lined up a long time ago. From the first night he came in for trials, against Waterford at UL last winter and hit two goals, O'Donnell (pictured) was in their minds for September, should they get that far.

He played a lone role up front for most of the league and his form waned a little, but within a few minutes of an 'A v B' game two weeks ago, he had two goals scored. So, too, had centre-back Pat Donnellan. The 'A' team had 8-9 registered after 21 minutes in what was supposed to be a 40-minute game. Fitzgerald, concerned of peaking too early, blew up. That was the night they knew O'Donnell was ready.

They completely rose to the challenge in the drawn game and while they left the door ajar they were more breathtaking in the replayed final. Despite losing serious possession after their excellent opening quarter, they still won 20 puck-outs in the game. To put that in perspective, Tipperary only managed 15 in their destruction of Kilkenny in the 2010 final, which in itself was considered a classic. In that same final, despite having Kilkenny on the rack, only three Tipperary forwards managed to break tackles – last Saturday night Conor McGrath managed to match that on his own.

For such an inexperienced band to maintain their composure when Cork came back at them was a serious indication of their maturity. It was the first time since 1888 that a team landed an All-Ireland title without even one player having a provincial medal to his name. It was also, of course, the first time in 14 years that one of Kilkenny, Cork or Tipp didn't win the title, prompting talk that the next five years spell some cold storage for these three as Clare, Dublin and Limerick look set to break new ground.

Under the new Central Council proposals to restructure the league, Cork look to have helped engineer a path back into Division 1 for themselves and Limerick so the top eight will each play seven grade A games. Wexford and Offaly have been scorned and feel hard done by.

"It's going to be absolutely fascinating," Dempsey says. "This season has shown that teams can now compete with the raw power of Kilkenny but this year's finalists have also shown a different way to play hurling. They produced previously unseen intensity and unsurpassed skill levels under pressure. The question now is: how will the traditional powers react to this shift? Will they follow suit and change tack or stay with their ways. That's fascinating to me."

Dempsey is right. Last Saturday night's replay was the 30th hurling championship game – and fittingly the best clash in the greatest season hurling has ever known.

"Along the way, we had to listen to Ger Loughnane talking about constipated hurling and that but the truth is the next five years could be the most open in hurling history."

Shortly after the final whistle sounded last Saturday, a Cork man approached Louis Mulqueen with a programme in his hands. Mulqueen braced himself for what was coming.

"C'mere," roared the Cork supporter, "I'm after having a terrible day, a real shitty day."

Mulqueen sympathised, wondering what was coming next.

"Could you do me a favour?" the Leesider asked.

"Go on?"

"Would ye let me join ye for the lap of honour? I need something to cheer me up."

Mulqueen agreed, looked on in amazement as your man joined the wave of saffron and blue and whooped it up around a baying Croke Park with his red shirt standing out like a sore thumb. He dived with the rest of the Clare team in front of the supporters and when the Liam MacCarthy Cup was raised and the moment photographed for the record books, it was the Cork man whose head blocked Mulqueen out of the picture. It was that kind of unexpected night. That kind of unexpected season.

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