Farewell to the best season ever

Foolish pundits with space to fill in the aftermath of All-Ireland finals are frequently tempted to wax on about the likelihood of the new champions becoming a three-in-a-row team.

It is an idle pursuit, for so many reasons.

As if anyone can, like the witches in the Scottish Play, look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow; which will not; speculate on how long Davy can coax unconditional devotion from his young charges; and guess the identity of the enemy manager who will find a way of negating that favoured weapon in the MacCarthy Cup holders’ armoury, the arrow from the left flank directed into the channels for the inside forwards to come out, latch onto, jink inside and work their mischief.

So: Clare for three in a row, then? After last weekend’s wide-screen, multi-Oscar-winning epic, filmed in glorious Technicolor and soundtracked by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, they’ll dream about it this winter in the Banner and they’ll be entitled to. The Great Levelling-Off Championship arrived at last and, with sublime appropriateness, was won by a bolter from the blue, the most improbable winners since Clare themselves in 1995. A season of shock and, seven days ago, awe.

The best championship ever? Probably. Even if the 2007 edition by and large had better teams. Cork were superior to now albeit on the slide, Waterford were at their peak and Kilkenny were advancing towards immortality.

The most entertaining championship ever? By a distance. What the first half of the summer had was surprises galore, which in itself made for an infinitely more interesting competition. What three of the last four fixtures had was high drama, the All-Ireland final and replay to an almost farcical degree. To sum up Championship 2013 in a sentence: great start, mediocre middle and a finish that might have been scripted by Steven Spielberg. The Adventures of the 15 Young Indiana Joneses.

Their joint-achievement with Cork over the course of both days was to turn the clock simultaneously back and forward. The Kilkenny/Tipperary matches of recent years, up to and including the National League final in May, were hurling re-enactments of the Battle of the Kursk: massive-scale collisions of heavily armoured tanks. We marvelled at the sound and the fury and assumed with a silent tear that the day of the small handy hurler was gone forever.

We were wrong. Clare versus Cork was a clash of light cavalry, swift and mobile and fluid. A new paradigm shift. A bunch of young lads who could be in One Direction taking the sport in a new direction. After the epoch of Kilkenny’s unsmiling dominance, Clare’s emergence is just what the game needed.

One suspects Davy dreams of meeting Brian Cody in an All-Ireland final. In some ways his team resemble Cody’s Kilkenny; in many others they’re its mirror image.

A bunch of small lads — five of their front eight last weekend measured less than six feet in height — who play a possession game: the obvious touchstone is Barcelona.

Like Kilkenny they defend from the front and defend in numbers. But they guard their possession better and are more measured about how they process it. Kilkenny could afford to dump balls on top of Richie Hogan, knowing that if he didn’t catch one he’d probably catch the next one. Clare ration their water supply far more carefully. When Colin Ryan turned in midfield in the 26th minute last week and pulled a hasty, unnecessary shot wide, it sounded like a tyre bursting. The first bad decision in possession by a Clare player.

Shortly afterwards Christopher Joyce, beset by saffrons under the Hogan Stand, pulled first time and succeeded merely in putting the ball out for a sideline cut. It was of a piece with Kieran Bergin’s overhead pull in the league final at Nowlan Park: a piece of innate skill that was counter-productive, given that in Bergin’s case the ball went straight to Kieran Joyce, unmarked at wing-back, who put it straight over the Tipperary bar. Protecting possession has never carried more of a premium.

Winners do not win by skill alone. Clare demonstrated that in spades. They endured a rancid third quarter, going scoreless for 17 minutes. Colm Galvin hit a bad wide. David McInerney put a ball out over the sideline. Conor McGrath was short with an attempt that Anthony Nash gobbled up and lamped halfway out to Dublin airport. Kelly lost possession under the Hogan Stand and conceded a free.

They might have folded. Instead they worked it out for themselves and kicked on again. And Conor McGrath’s goal — the flawlessness of the pick-up, the impudence of ambition, the precision of the finish – will for this generation of Clare folk be the equivalent of the closing line of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-term Break’ for a generation of Irish schoolchildren. A moment of artistry seared into their consciousness forever.

Two moments shaped the outcome of the 2013 championship. One we saw in real time: Ryan O’Dwyer’s sending-off in the All Ireland semi-final. The other Clare’s decision to abandon the sweeper for both finals. This Damascene conversion by the management allowed the bird to fly the nest and trusted their boys to out hurl the opposition.

The upshot was that Clare operated within a structure without being imprisoned by a system. David McInerney had the freedom to attack from deep and Pat Donnellan no longer had so many outlets for short passes his head was in danger of exploding.

One size doesn’t fit all. The champions adopted a game that suited them and them alone. This year’s black will not be next year’s black; a two-man full-forward line is not about to become the new craze. The one counter-measure we may see is opposition half-back lines dropping deeper to close the space in which Clare’s two inside men operate, or perhaps a wing-back detailed to patrol in front of them. And Clare will not always be the faster, fitter, sharper team.

Cork? This one will hurt for a while. To lose an All-Ireland by six or seven points with an average team is a disappointment but at least has the consolation of leaving no room for might have beens. To come so close with an average team stings far more painfully. In self-mitigation they might reflect that better teams will lose to these Clare youngsters in the coming years.

For all that victory went to the superior side, the losers’ basic errors shouldn’t be forgotten. The collective failure to terminate, with extreme prejudice if necessary, Donnellan’s run for Shane O’Donnell’s first goal. Conor O’Sullivan’s poor touch for the second. Shane O’Neill getting caught the wrong side of O’Donnell for the third.

In the end Cork found their level and an All-Ireland very nearly won against the head slipped through their fingers. Now the journey must begin all over again. Taking one step backwards is as likely a prospect for them next year as taking one step forward. Mind you, we said the same at the end of 2012 and look how that turned out. And try visualising Cork with Paudie O’Sullivan back, with Aidan Walsh or Ciarán Sheehan in the mix, with Seamus Harnedy maintaining his form and with a new half-back with spikes. A John Gardiner type, say, who isn’t John Gardiner.

Oh, and one other requirement. A touch more in the way of tactical sophistication. The first half against Dublin was Cork’s best 35 minutes of the year. An old-fashioned shoot-out, everyone in his position, six and two and six versus six and two and six. Not a coincidence.

Gentlemen, thank you one and all. It’s been life-affirming.

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