Wednesday 13 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Still drama left in this summer of madness

Wondrous season of make-believe continues to defy the odds, making pundits look like fools and promising more thrills before its climax

Cork's Séamus Harnedy is tackled by Clare players Conor Ryan, Cian Dillon and Brendan Bugler, resulting in a penalty
Cork's Séamus Harnedy is tackled by Clare players Conor Ryan, Cian Dillon and Brendan Bugler, resulting in a penalty
Cork's Pa Cronin fires an effort between the posts as Clare's Brendan Bugler and Cian Dillon, right, look on during yesterday's All-Ireland SHC final
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald gestures on the sidelines
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Were they church-bells ringing in the distance or was that the clang of idiot jaws rebounding off the press-box floor? This game concussed the very practice of punditry. Everything foreseen in the build-up turned out to be just the bogus hum of clairvoyants, chatting to themselves in the mirror. Cork, we knew, don't score goals, Clare don't play orthodox defence, corner-backs don't do fairytales.

So the daftest hurling season seen since Cusack and Davin called order in Hayes Hotel, navigated its way into the realm of make-believe as Domhnall O'Donovan, terror muscling its way into every Clare heart, fired over an almost balletic equaliser just as Brian Gavin was putting the whistle to his lips.

"Fair play to him," grinned Davy Fitz after. "If I had to pick one to score a point, I don't know if I'd have picked Dunny!"

The shock that went sallying through Croke Park unlocked great roars of Banner gratitude, the threatened larceny of a game they dominated intercepted at the death. But neutrals exulted too. For, if there have been more beautiful games, there haven't been many better.

Fearless

Each Cork goal was an earthquake in itself, yet the Clare anger that kept rising up in response had a volcanic glow. They are young and fearless and programmed to hope even when those around them are on their knees making the sign of a cross.

That said, it was a day to make you wonder about that abstract force we call tradition.

Because Cork hurled for long stretches as if programmed to the wrong frequency yesterday. They leaked two first-half points to sheer doziness on short line 'cuts'. They withdrew Jamie Coughlan at half-time when they might have withdrawn any of three other forwards. They managed just a single point from play in the opening 32 minutes and should have lost Shane O'Neill to an early red card.

Yet, it was as if destiny was still carrying them to the mountain-top. An article in the match programme revealed that Cork have not lost an All-Ireland final to anyone other than Kilkenny since 1956. Meaningless arithmetic? Sometimes these stats toss little gremlins into the mind.

Clare were, arguably, seven or eight points the better team yesterday. Yet they were the ones drawn to prayer in the end. The hurling year has given us something probably unrecognisable to the traditional eye.

A hybrid game with all element of gamble nudged towards the dust-pan. A game consumed with the mechanics of space. Big, ball-winning midfielders seem obsolete (unless, of course, assigned a role at centre-back). Likewise centre-forwards tethered to the '40'.

The modern coach thinks at odd tangents. He looks beyond the conventional grids of three, pulling extra bodies into what has become an area of controlled havoc around the middle third.

Players' minds are mapped differently now. The winning of individual battles is a more nuanced concept. Just about nobody stands hip to hip, everything is articulated at breakneck speed and with lasered precision.

Yet, Clare surprised us. They dispensed with the practice of sitting a sweeper in front of their full-backs, Patrick Donnellan re-sited to midfield. They made no attempt to take Tony Kelly out of Brian Murphy's venomous reach and the Ballyea kid was on the scoreboard within eight minutes. Their body language rang out with wild defiance. It was as if they wore their manager's skin.

Remember Davy brazenly challenging DJ Carey to beat him with that penalty in the '97 semi-final? Fast forward to 3.47 yesterday and Patrick Kelly doing likewise with Anthony Nash as the Cork goalkeeper lined up a 20-metre free. Nash's subsequent jab-lift spooned the ball a good five yards forward, Kelly's cavalry charge carrying him even further than that in the opposite direction.

The two men weren't far off colliding as the sliotar caromed off Kelly's rear-end to safety.

Clare were lucky Gavin did not demand a retake, but unlucky that he had not acted on O'Neill's reckless pull across Darach Honan's head or, subsequently, a blatant chop on David McInerney, who he instead penalised for over-carrying. They were unlucky too that Lorcan McLoughlin's charge at Colin Ryan brought a Cork free when all evidence identified Ryan as the victim.

Those latter decisions resulted in two converted frees for Pat Horgan. The distance between the teams at half-way.

Conventional wisdom told us that you don't get anywhere trying to go down Clare's throat so, five minutes after the resumption, Conor Lehane opted for a side-gate. Which, of course, is a hopelessly inadequate description of his billowing, diagonal run from the 65-metre line, Patrick O'Connor giving futile chase, before burying a goal that was met by a wall of sound.

Yet, Clare saw off that crisis by scoring seven of the next 10 scores. Their half-backs, particularly Brendan Bugler and Conor Ryan, began to hurl with the freedom of men devoid of fear. Cork were sinking again, trailing by five (0-21 to 1-13) with just 13 minutes remaining. Then Luke O'Farrell went to ground and Nash, having crossed the straights of Gallipoli to get there, buried a 20-metre free.

Three minutes later, he was on safari to the Hill end goal once again, but this time Colin Ryan pushed his penalty attempt onto the crossbar, the tarot cards suddenly turning sour for Cork.

But then that man 'tradition' came tipping shoulders again. Cork, clinically dead in our eyes, came surging towards the Hill again and Pa Cronin, the game passing him by like a speeding train, scored a goal of unassailable beauty. Cork's third and, somewhere above the clouds, Ringy cackling at the gas of it

We were in injury-time, Davy with his hands to his head, as Horgan – with sublime stickwork – took Christopher Joyce's pass and fired what looked certain to be a classy winner. Thievery with style.

For Clare, the humour of what followed was referenced by dressing-room memories of July 6 in Ennis, when they stockpiled 32 points against an out-classed Laois. Only two of their players failed to raise a flag that evening. Goalkeeper Kelly, and one Domhnall O'Donovan.

Davy smiled the smile of a man blissfully wrapped up in the madness.

"I thought we played unreal stuff," he said.

"We had it won a few times and they kept being brought back into it. Look, that's the way it goes. We're only the small little fish out there, we're trying hard to make it through. But it's harder to get the breaks when you're the smaller fish.

"Cork hit us blow after blow, but we kept coming back. I'm extremely proud of them. Didn't it show some heart at the end when the game looked over to go back up that field?"

Could they do it the next day, he was asked.

"Oh we can yeah!" he smiled.

Let the madness roll.

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