AH, friends, after a match such as this – nay, after living, breathing life theatre such as this, pity us poor scribes!
Coming to the end of a hurling season that has never really taken off, those of us among the 5,741 live audience in Semple Stadium for this All-Ireland U-21 hurling semi-final, those who followed the drama on TG4, witnessed 80 minutes of non-stop action, yes, but we also witnessed so much more.
There was another chapter added to the Cinderella hurling story of Clare who won their first Munster crown in this grade a few weeks ago; there was the quality of hurling from first ball to last by two superbly prepared teams; there was the individual genius on display at either end of the field, Galway’s Joe Canning adding to an ever-growing reputation with a 4-7 haul while Clare’s Darach Honan added light to an already bright afternoon.
Then there was the Clare support. With every under-pressure defensive clearance from the likes of captain Ciarán O’Doherty and centre-back Nicky O’Connell, with every winged score from the likes of John Conlon and Seán Collins, came a wall of sound from the thousands supporting the saffron and blue. On that note, and not for the first time at this grade in a big match, Galway were like an orphaned child, abandoned to their fate by a fickle hurling public, but they found their inspiration from within.
And finally, of course, we had the fairytale ending, Clare surging to victory with three points from John Conlon, Darach Honan and Colin Ryan after yet another Joe Canning goal – his fourth of the match – had put Galway a point ahead with only four minutes remaining.
After all that, my friends, the Book of Superlatives rendered obsolete, where do you reach for description? The tone for the day was set in the first minute, a point from Clare wing-forward Seán Collins within 10 seconds which was quickly answered by Galway corner-forward Alan Dolan after a fine pass from Niall Quinn in the opposite corner. Already, then, we were seeing skill, awareness, intelligence, team play, and this was before either Joe Canning or Darach Honan entered the picture. Centre-forward Aodan Harte was next on the board, a point for Galway, Colin Ryan and Caimin Morey replying for Clare.
Instantly Galway hit back, midfielder David Burke with a point, before big Joe registered his first of the game, a tap-over free (for him) from a mere 50m out on the left, putting Galway ahead 0-4 to 0-3 after nine minutes. Breathless stuff, but surely, we felt, they couldn’t sustain that pace for the full 60 minutes. Well, they did, and beyond. There isn’t space here to describe minutely, on a score-by-score basis, what happened thereafter; a further 23 scores for Clare, 16 for Galway, eight goals shared between them – where do you start? Where do you finish?
Suffice to say that at the first interval, courtesy of two goals from Joe Canning – one from an ordinary 22m free, the second from a penalty, for both of which he was the man fouled, the goal at his mercy on each occasion – Galway led by four points, 2-7 to 0-9. We could have had a couple of more goals, for both sides, but vigilant defence and some outstanding keeping from Donal Touhy (Clare) and Galway’s James Skehill (especially, and what a game he had overall, two absolutely breathtaking saves) kept the scores down.
In that first-half, Galway had the assistance of the breeze; in the second, Darach Honan now operating on the edge of the square, Clare came back into it. The giant Clonlara youngster (son of former Clare star Colm) had already shown flashes of his potential from his earlier position in the corner – now, he set the game on fire. He scored 1-1 in the first four minutes of the second half, and every time the ball came near him – and just as was the case at the other end with Joe Canning – the buzz from the stands was palpable. Those scores lifted Clare and in the 46th minute, subs Conor Tierney and Conor McGrath combined to goal, the latter with the final touch and the Munster champions took the lead, 2-12 to 2-9. Back came Galway, however, and they were level again in the 58th minute at 2-15 to 3-12, level again at the end of normal time, 2-16 to 3-13.
Into extra-time then, in a match that no-one deserved to lose, and surely, surely, they couldn’t keep this up? But maintain it they did. Clare it was setting the early pace, going five points clear after Darach had again goaled after a powerful long-striding ground-devouring solo run. That should have signalled the end for Galway, would have signalled the end of most any other side, but Galway had Joe, and Joe had other ideas. An over-shoulder pass to Aodan Harte set up the comeback, a sideline cut from 45m right (his second such), and they were back to within two points at the third break, 3-19 to 4-14. After the restart Conor Tierney extended the Clare lead to two with his second point, but again came Joe, his final goal, and a score worthy of winning any contest – a long free from the brilliant Skehill was doubled on one-handed from the midst of the crowd by treble-teamed Joe and it whizzed to the net.
Galway now went one point ahead and it was Clare’s turn to show character. After Conor McGrath had nonchalantly slotted over the equaliser, from distance, fittingly, it fell to the other man of the afternoon, Darach Honan, to score the next. Blocked into the right-side corner, nowhere to go, he kept his patience, turned, twisted, made just enough room for himself to squeeze into space, squeeze off an angled drive – point. Colin Ryan added the insurance point a couple of minutes later. A just result, just about, and Clare had so many heroes on the day, including Ciarán O’Doherty, with two goal-saving hooks in extra-time, but oh, what drama, what drama!
Scorers for Clare: D. Honan 2-4; C. Ryan 0-8 (0-4 frees, 0-2 65’s); C. McGrath 1-1; J. Conlon 0-3; C. Tierney 0-2; S. Collins 0-2; N. O’Connell (free), C. O’Donovan, C. Morey, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Galway: J. Canning 4-7 (2-0 pens, 1-3 frees, 0-1 65, 0-2 s/l); A. Harte 1-2; E. Forde 0-3; D. Burke, A. Dolan, N. Quinn, 0-1 each.
Subs for Clare: C. Dillon (Gunning 20); C. McGrath (O’Connor 30); C. Tierney (Morey 44); P. Kelly (Collins inj. 79).
Subs for Galway: K. Killilea (Dolan 40); B. Daly (Linnane 47); G. Burke (Keehan 52); J. Ryan (S. Quinn inj. 69); S. Óg Linnane (Forde 80).
Referee: C. McAllister (Cork).