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O’Connor’s injury-time equaliser keeps battling Banner in business

Tony Griffin and Tommy Walsh

Clare 1-13 Kilkenny 1-13
By Jim O’Sullivan
REMARKABLY, champions Kilkenny are still in the Guinness hurling championship.

They surviving a stunning challenge from resurgent Clare in yesterday’s quarter-final in Croke Park due to a combination of James McGarry’s brilliant goalkeeping and missed chances in the closing minutes by Anthony Daly’s powerfully motivated side.

Ultimately, Jamesie O’Connor’s injury-time equaliser for Clare was thoroughly deserved and equally, the draw was fully merited by a Kilkenny team which was reduced to 14 men following the dismissal of star defender Tommy Walsh.

What sustained their challenge during a fiercely-contested half was an early goal from substitute John Hoyne, superb defensive play and inspired free-taking from Henry Shefflin. Clare, meanwhile, were continuing to benefit from the strategy of using five forwards and deploying Alan Markham in a sweeper role.

And when the major threat from Niall Gilligan was complemented by outstanding play from Tony Griffin, there was every chance of a shock result.

Such an outcome might even have been envisaged from an early stage. The fact is that Clare gave signals of their intent in the vigour with which they competed for every ball and the impressive manner in which they forced the favourites back on the defensive. And, they won the psychological battle by lining up Gerry Quinn at centre-forward for the start and then quickly withdrew him to left half-back - where he was to play an inspired part.

This gave Markham the freedom to cover across the half-back line and he contributed hugely from start to finish.

Starting with left corner-back Gerry O’Grady, the first to lay down a marker (against Eddie Brennan, who did nothing before being taken off at half-time), Clare’s confidence spread from the heart of the defence throughout the field. Interestingly, in the context of his masterly display against Galway, Tommy Walsh went from being uncomfortable in the early exchanges with Niall Gilligan to completely playing second fiddle. It was to result in him picking up an initial yellow card in the 30th minute which precipitated his later sending-off.

With Frank Lohan in control against DJ Carey and Seán McMahon doing a good marking job on Henry Shefflin (for the first 20 minutes), Clare were able to pick off early scores with comparative ease - three inside eight minutes. And they were to hold their lead until the 21st minute - by which time Kilkenny had become sufficiently organised to mount a few decent attacks.

And they were beginning to cope a bit better in defence, with JJ Delaney settling down to play excellently and Peter Barry more involved.

Nevertheless, while Clare’s exercise in damage limitation was hugely successful, only the in-form Gilligan was posing a major threat. The return from the other four forwards was negligible - except that it would have to be acknowledged that Tony Carmody did vital work supporting the defence.

Also their "loose" man - James Ryall - was very involved and made a succession of relieving clearances. In spite of all that, Kilkenny were continuing to find it extremely difficult to penetrate, until Shefflin started to win ball (and frees). Carey worked very hard without making much headway, Pat Tennyson and Jimmy Coogan likewise, but team captain Martin Comerford and Brennan were anonymous. After the teams had been level for the first time at 0-4 each and Gilligan restored Clare’s lead with a 23rd minute free, substitute Jamesie O’Connor created a goal chance only to be foiled by full-back Noel Hickey’s intervention. O’Connor, looking very sharp, was now proving a good addition at wing-forward. Still, for all their promise, Clare managed to be only a point in front at the break, 0-6 to 0-5.

Restarting with Shefflin and Jimmy Coogan operating a two-man forward line, Kilkenny got the perfect boost with a goal after 25 seconds from substitute John Hoyne which was created by Carey. In another six minutes, three Shefflin points (the first from a free) had them five points in front and for the first time they looked composed.

In between, the game’s first real drama was provided by Walsh’s dismissal, after he hauled down Gilligan inside the square, but Noel Hickey stopped Davy Fitzgerald’s resultant penalty and cleared the ball off the line. For a while, Kilkenny were in control, with Peter Barry really solid at centre-back, Richard Mullally and especially Delaney doing great work on the wings. But Gilligan (now marked by Ryall) exposed a continuing vulnerability in the full-back line which was enhanced by Griffin’s strength in the air.

The trend of the game changed little before Griffin manufactured two goal chances, in the 55th and 57th minutes. From the first one, he was fouled, given the advantage and had an angled shot diverted by McGarry for a seventy - which Seán McMahon put over. Then he went clean through and put the ball in the net, only to be called back for a penalty.

This one was taken by Gilligan and he made no mistake.

It levelled scores at 1-10 each with 13 minutes of normal time remaining and set up a dramatic finale. Once again, McGarry came to Kilkenny’s rescue with a third save (from Carmody) and to add to their agony, Griffin touched the rebound against the post. Briefly the advantage swung Kilkenny’s way with a 65 yards DJ Carey pointed free and a good score from substitute Seán Dowling. That lead lasted a mere three minutes, though, thanks to two Gilligan frees.

Kilkenny were hanging on by a threat, struggling to get ball down to Shefflin and frustrated continually by Markham. And, they were in luck when Clare struck three balls wide in a four-minute period before Shefflin put them in the lead. That was from a 71st minute penalty which he wisely decided to put over the bar and it promised to win them the game until Gilligan made the opening for O’Connor to save the game.

* Ger Harrington’s general refereeing was quite good, except that he was inconsistent in his application of the advantage rule and was over-strict in the manner of some of the yellow cards he applied.

Scorers: Kilkenny - H. Shefflin 0-9 (0-7 frees); J. Hoyne 1-0; P. Tennyson, J. Coogan, D.J. Carey (free) and S. Dowling 0-1 each. Clare: N. Gilligan 1-7 (1-5 frees); S. McMahon 0-3 (0-2 seventies); A. Quinn, D. McMahon and J. O’Connor 0-1 each.

KILKENNY: J. McGarry; J. Ryall, N. Hickey, T. Walsh; R. Mullally, P. Barry, J.J. Delaney; D. Lyng, K. Coogan; M. Comerford (capt.), H. Shefflin, P. Tennyson; E. Brennan, D.J. Carey, J. Coogan. Subs: J. Hoyne for Brennan (second half); S. Dowling for Tennyson (58th); P. Mullally for R. Mullally (60th).

CLARE: D. Fitzgerald; B. Quinn, F. Lohan, G. O’Grady; D. Hoey, S. McMahon (capt.), A. Markham; C. Lynch, D. McMahon; A. Quinn, G. Quinn, D. Forde; N. Gilligan, T. Griffin, T. Carmody. Subs: J. O’Connor for Forde (22nd minute); O. Baker for A. Quinn (53rd); D. O’Connell for D. McMahon (54th).