A day borrowed from the hurling gods

BANNER GOLD: Clare captain Patrick Donnellan lifts the Liam McCarthy cup after an epic replay battle with Cork at Croke Park.Picture: Brendan Moran

ALL-IRELAND SHC FINAL REPLAY:
Clare 5-16 Cork 3-16
REPLAYS aren’t supposed to be like this, replays on an occasion of this magnitude especially.

The drawn All-Ireland hurling final had been a heart-stopper, fortunes swaying massively from one side to the other in the final, frantic moments. Having never led during the normal 70 minutes, having shown immense courage and character to hang onto Clare’s coat-tails in a game in which they had looked outclassed, Cork had stolen the lead in the first minute of injury-time through a magical Patrick Horgan point, came within seconds of being crowned champions. Then up stepped a most unlikely point-scoring equalising hero for Clare, corner-back Domhnall O’Donovan, his first championship score.

That point was the final exclamation mark in a game that been punctuated by so many; it saved the match for Clare, saved the season for Clare, set up this rematch. And set up an opportunity for another unlikely Clare hero.

Shane O’Donnell got on to the Clare team bus on Saturday afternoon hoping he might get to play some part before the 70 minutes was over. Only just turned 19 on June 15, the youngest boy in class, he had starred on the U21 side that only two weeks ago won Clare’s second All-Ireland title in a row. That game though had been a romp so that as Shane got on that bus he had little reason to believe he had made enough of an impression.

A few minutes and a few miles later he knew he was going to start. A few hours, a few goals and a few points later (three of each to be precise), Clare had a new hero. "We were getting the bus from the train station to St Patrick’s College, Davy (Fitzgerald, manager) took me aside and told me — ‘You’re starting.’ Usually, if I ‘ve been named to start I get caught up in my stomach through the whole day and it gets worse and worse, but it was too late for nerves at that stage, just pure excitement. In hindsight it was brilliant, I dodged all the nerves."

O’Donnell’s first act was an angled point in the second minute, a strike from the right wing where he had been shepherded by Cork’s Shane O’Neill, giving Clare a two-point lead. His first goal came four minutes later, Clare midfielder and captain Patrick Donnellan slicing open the Cork defence, drawing out O’Neill, then hitting the perfectly positioned Shane. His second came in the 13th minute, Conor McGrath this time the provider, the unfortunate O’Neill again drawn out, O’Donnell again taking up the optimum position. And again his strike was perfect, across keeper Anthony Nash’s body, on his weaker right side.

"It was deliberate," Shane explained of his shot selection. "You know their (keeper’s) bad side and you put the ball there if you can at all. If you went for his left side you’re just not going to beat him. The lads gave me great ball each time, I got enough room to swing, get in a full shot and put it where I wanted to hit it."

That goal put Clare 2-5 to 0-4 ahead and as in the drawn game of three weeks ago, Cork were forced to play catch-up.

To their credit they did, and did it in style. An Anthony Nash 20m free rifled through a crowded goal-mouth gave them hope, brought a massive cheer from their fans in the 82,276 crowd — one man beating 13.

"The five normal penalty stoppers were in front," explained Clare keeper Pa Kelly, "seven or eight lads behind them with the hurleys up but it’s just a case of hoping the ball hits you more so than getting your eye co-ordination to the ball because you’re not going to stop it."

All goalie’s hurleys too but made no difference — goal.

That brought Cork back within a goal (2-5 to 1-5) but not for long. In the 19th minute Shane pounced again, his hat-trick, this one the pick of the three. "For the first two goals it was just the way things broke — someone coming through the middle, the full-back has to go for him. For the third one, he (O’Neill) was covering the break behind but the ball broke to me — I just got lucky."

Nothing lucky about the finish, however; two men closing on him from behind, Nash converging from in front, Shane had the presence of mind to bat the ball tennis-style to the net — 3-6 to 1-6.

Again Cork came back, points from Seamus Harnedy, Pa Cronin and Patrick Horgan (two) before the break leaving them only four behind at half-time, 3-9 to 1-11. They continued that purple patch on the restart and by the 54th minute, had drawn level. It was a pivotal moment in the game, momentum firmly with the Reds.

Cue Shane O’Donnell once again. Too many forwards score early then rest on their laurels for the rest of the game. Not the youngster from Eire Óg, not this time anyway. "I’ve been guilty of that myself, if I got an early goal or two I’d fade out of the game. It’s not anything you’re doing consciously, it would just happen. You’d end the game without scoring again and you’re thinking, ‘There were still 40 minutes left and I failed to score again’. Thankfully I got another couple of points in the second-half."

The first of those, with Clare having been held to just one point since the 26th minute, was arguably his most important score of the day. "I’d agree with that. The goals were grand but they weren’t at pivotal times; for the point we hadn’t scored in a while. If I’d put it wide we’d have been in trouble."

As in the drawn game that wasn’t the end of this melodrama in Croke Park, time yet for several more twists and turns. 59th minute Clare had extended their lead to three points; 60th Cork had tied it up again (3-13 to 2-16), Harnedy with a follow-up goal after a fine first-time Conor Lehane strike; two minutes later Clare were again a goal ahead, Conor McGrath with a magnificent solo effort.

And even still it wasn’t over, this magical, mystical spectacle. Clare went six points ahead, Cork got a third goal, sub Stephen Moylan capitalising on a wonderful Cronin catch and pass as the game entered injury-time. And still there was more, sub Cathal Naughton with a half-chance after a Harnedy catch and pass, dropped, taken clear by the racing Seadna Morey, delivered long to another sub, Darach Honan, who scored the game’s final goal.

What a game again, what a challenge by Cork, but let there be no doubt about the best team in hurling in 2013. Clare, All-Ireland champions. Get used to it...

Scorers for Clare: S O’Donnell (3-3); Colin Ryan (0-7, six frees, one 65); C McGrath (1-1); D Honan (1-0); T Kelly (0-3); J Conlon (0-2).

Scorers for Cork: P Horgan (0-9, seven frees); S Harnedy (1-2); S Moylan (1-1); A Nash (1-0, free); C Lehane (0-2); P Cronin, L McLoughlin (0-1).

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

Clare subs: C McInerney for Galvin (52); N O’Connell for Collins (59); D Honan for O’Donnell (66); S Morey for Kelly (71). Blood sub: F Lynch for O’Donnell (50/51);

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

Cork subs: S White for Egan (23); S Moylan for O’Farrell (35); T Kenny for Kearney (38); C Naughton for McCarthy (55); K Murphy for McDonnell (inj. 67).

Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath)