An emotional, riveting roller-coaster

Cork 3-16 Clare 0-25
All around the world yesterday, in adventure parks from Australia to Japan and the United States, there were people thrilling to rides that compete for the title of greatest roller-coaster in the world.

‘Tower of Terror’, ‘Steel Dragon’, ‘Intimidator 305’, ‘Thunder Dragon’, they’re all in there, gut-churning twists and turns, breathtaking drops that suck the breath from your lungs.

None, absolutely none, would have offered the thrills and spills thrown up by this game at a packed Croke Park yesterday, which left both sets of supporters utterly drained.

It began, as do all the best roller-coaster rides, in fairly gentle fashion. In perfect conditions, Clare were first to register, two early points on the board per Darach Honan and free-taker Colin Ryan (another masterful display, 12 points, 11 from 13 from placed balls).

By the 12th minute it was still moving along smoothly, tied on four each after points from Cork’s Seamus Harnedy and three from their ace marksman Patrick Horgan (as with Ryan, superb, ten points, eight from nine from frees).

Then it began to take off, or more specifically, Clare began to take off. Contrary to most expectations they parked the sweeper system that had served them so well against Galway and Limerick, went with convention, albeit with captain Patrick Donnellan in midfield rather at centre-back, Patrick O’Connor manning that position while Conor Ryan took dangerman Harnedy.

With their defence on top, suffocating the Cork attack after that early little burst, Clare went on four-point run, sandwiched around a fine save by Cork keeper Anthony Nash from a Honan first-time ground shot.

It was looking ominous for the Rebels, the Banner roar rising as they began to thrill to the exploits of their young side. Coming up to half-time they were four points ahead, 0-12 to 0-8 but also had three wides on the board to none for Cork.

Two late points though gave Cork hope, the first from raiding centre-back Brian Murphy, the second a huge effort by Patrick Horgan after a lovely little one-handed pass by Conor O’Sullivan, leaving it 0-12 to 0-10 at half-time.

Flattering for Cork, though they had threatened in the 18th minute especially, Patrick Kelly saving well from Daniel Kearney, then saving the subsequent 20m bullet free by Anthony Nash (illegally — was almost on the 13m line!), a Podge Collins point resulting at the other end.

The second half however was when this roller-coaster really took off. Always it was Clare out front, two early points again (Tony Kelly and Colin Ryan) to start the second half, extending their lead to four. Then came the first major twist, Conor Lehane announcing his presence with a spectacular solo goal, rounding Patrick O’Connor, then a 40 metre solo before sending a searing shot across Kelly.

Even as Cork voices soared to the Drumcondra heavens, however, back came Clare and by the 55th minute, Collins (a truly magical effort from the left wing, mesmerising three Cork defenders), John Conlon, Conor McGrath and Colin Ryan (four) with the scores, they had established what looked a commanding five-point lead, 0-21 to 1-13.

Time for two quick twists. 57th minute, disdaining a succession of nonsensical physical challenges as he made his way upfield, Anthony Nash buried a 20 metre free.

Hardly had he made his back to his own goals however than he was called upfield again, Seamus Harnedy taken down by a combination of David McInerney and Cian Dillon — Cork penalty. Guaranteed goal, surely? Not this time, Colin Ryan somehow getting his stick to the shot to deflect it onto the crossbar, then free out.

Cork cheers dyed in their throats, Clare in seventh heaven. Not for long.

Clare did get the next two scores, first Colin Ryan from a free, then man-of-the-match Conor Ryan with a truly inspirational point — huge catch (the Clare half-back line brilliant in this department all game), surge forward, then a long-range score.

Four points ahead again (0-23 to 2-13), eight minutes remaining – this was surely now Clare’s All-Ireland title.

But no, not even close, this roller-coaster was just hitting its peak. A Lehane Cork point reduced the deficit to a goal; then half-chance for a Clare goal missed at one end after the ball came back off the crossbar, ends up with Cork sub Stephen Moylan (fine game) who parts to Pa Cronin — absolute net-buster from the Cork captain and now it’s game tied, 0-23 to 3-14, 64th minute.

And still it wasn’t over. With the tension at its peak Colin Ryan nosed Clare in front, another free, matched within a minute by a similar score from Horgan.

Into injury-time, ‘At least two minutes’ said the announcer, and in the first minute Patrick Horgan scored a peach of a point — Cork ahead, still ahead as the clock ticked past 72 minutes following Moylan’s wide from a lineball.

One last Clare attack, one last twist; the equalising point but it came not from any one of Clare’s six super forwards, nor from their outstanding midfielders, nor yet any of the three heroes of the half-back line. It was that man Domhnall O’Donovan, and what he was doing inside the Cork 65m line only he knows.

No matter; gratefully accepting the pass from Nicky O’Connell, off balance, Domhnall split the posts — roller-coaster over, end of the ride. For this day, only for this day.

Replay. Can’t wait.

Scorers for Cork: P Horgan (0-10, eight frees); C Lehane (1-1); P Cronin (1-0); A Nash (1-0, free); S Harnedy (0-2); D Kearney (0-2); B Murphy (0-1).

Scorers for Clare: Colin Ryan (0-12, 11 frees); T Kelly (0-3); P Collins (0-3); C McGrath (0-2); J Conlon (0-2); D Honan, Conor Ryan, D O’Donovan (0-1 each).

CORK: A Nash; S McDonnell, S O’Neill, C O’Sullivan; B Murphy, C Joyce, W Egan; D Kearney, L McLoughlin; S Harnedy, P Cronin (c), C Lehane; L O’Farrell, P Horgan, J Coughlan.

Subs for Cork: S Moylan for Coughlan (35); C McCarthy for McLoughlin (42); C Naughton for McCarthy (inj. 50); T Kenny for Egan (64); S White for Kearney (67).

CLARE: P Kelly; D O’Donovan, C Dillon, D McInerney; B Bugler, Conor Ryan, P O’Connor; T Kelly, C Galvin; Colin Ryan, P Collins, J Conlon; C McGrath, D Honan, P Donnellan (c).

Subs for Clare: C McInerney for Honan (61); F Lynch for Conlon (64); N O’Connell for Galvin (64).

Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).