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Brilliant Banner raising the standard

Croke Park, September 3, 1995: Clare 1-13 Offaly 2-8.

And lo, walls tumbled and the chimes of freedom rang out and the nation became honorary Banner folk for the day as history was made in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. In the outpouring of joy that ensued, a couple of things were overlooked or — and rightly so because they were fantastically irrelevant — dismissed. It was neither a distinguished All-Ireland final nor a distinguished All-Ireland-winning performance, even if most of the Clare players hurled to form. Jamesie O’Connor, who failed to get to grips with the occasion, was one of two obvious exceptions. The other, of course, was Fergie Tuohy, who landed four points from play in the course of the kind of afternoon that drives people to write poems.

But so what? The country didn’t mind the quality, the country looked at the scoreline and the country rejoiced.

Croke Park, September 8 2013: Clare 0-25 Cork 3-16.

This was a distinguished All Ireland final and a distinguished Clare performance. The Banner didn’t win but they did everything short of it. No team had ever hit 25 scores in an All-Ireland final before without winning it (Galway in 1990 and Tipperary in 2009 both racked up 23 scores in defeat). That alone rendered it an achievement of sorts.

And that was before one got around to the standout moments of Clare’s highlights reel. Tony Kelly bouncing the ball off the ground a la Pat Delaney. Colin Ryan finding a colleague with a reverse-sweep pass. Podge Collins swaying this way and that before hoisting the point of the day from an angle under the Cusack Stand.

Ger Loughnane would have been proud of it had he been there to observe and inhale an altogether different brand of hurling from the one his guys played in 1995. Craftier, wristier, more fluent, more natural hurling. And, thankfully, Loughnane was there to observe, inhale and exult. "The type of hurling we always dreamed that Clare would play in Croke Park," he enthused. Loughnane’s legacy. Hurling set to Mozart, played by the children of the Feakle man’s revolution.

But what now? What tomorrow? Far more importantly, what about next year and the years to come? In a sense the result this weekend is irrelevant. Davy Fitz’s Clare have arrived. Victory or defeat in the replay won’t alter that. Win or lose they’ll be a team to plot and plan for next summer in a way that Cork won’t be. Because Davy Fitz’s Clare, with their systems and structures and attacking corner-backs and floating corner-forwards, are a team unlike Cork. Because Davy Fitz’s Clare are a team unlike any other in the land.

Beating any other team in the land entails winning more positions. Beating Clare entails winning entire sectors and foreclosing on other sectors. They can hurl with a sweeper and without one. They can score as much with seven defenders as with six: 1-22 against Limerick in the semi-final versus the 0-25 of the final. Nearly all of their defenders are prepared to attack, nearly all of their attackers do a second shift defending.

Soccer legend Johan Cruyff would adore watching them.

The evidence of our eyes this summer suggests if one of tomorrow’s protagonists are to win, say, two of the next five All-Irelands it’ll be Clare who do so rather than Cork. The age profile is right; 21.8 was the average age of the starting 15 of the drawn game. The marital-status profile, or complete lack thereof, is right. Besides, cracking Clare is a task that won’t be over and done with any time soon. Defeat tomorrow will send Davy homeward to think again and return next year with new bells, new whistles, new configurations. With Shane O’Donnell, perhaps, as the triggerman of choice on the edge of the enemy square.

Victory would usher in the usual dangers — Drink! Girls! Getting sick of Davy’s voice! Feck! — and prompt the usual cautionary tales.

Clare people won’t have to be told about their successful All-Ireland minors of 1997. Not a lot of people know this, but a film was made about them that starred Kiefer Sutherland. It was called The Lost Boys. Inhabitants of the Banner are, for excellent if obvious geographical reasons, equally familiar with the fate of Limerick’s three-in-a-row All-Ireland U21 side from a decade ago. Tipperary’s recent crop provide a more chilling example, however.

You know, the bunch that won successive All-Ireland minor titles, that proceeded not so much to hammer Galway in the 2010 U21 decider as to atomise them, that hurled beautifully in defeat as seniors in 2009 and only slightly less brilliantly in victory in 2010. But 2010 was where it ended. Any talented team can play well — or in the case of Clare a fortnight ago, resplendently — in Croke Park. The hard bit is to keep playing well there. The men of 1995 weren’t sated by one banquet, Loughnane made damn sure of that, but so many of them had been so scarred by defeat in the Munster finals of 1993 and ’94 that a single visit to the buffet could never fill their bellies. Do the current group possess the same iron will, the same bloodymindedness, as the Lohans and Dalo and Baker and Colin Lynch and Seánie Mac did?

Was Sept 8 the start of the most exciting chapter in the county’s history or merely a colourful but fleeting paragraph? Clare will have a chastening championship experience next year or the year after. Some match they’re supposed to win, they lose and they’re mortified.

What then? The manager himself must be expected to learn as he goes along. It’s clear Davy decided some time back to, if not quite observe a Trappist silence this summer, then at any rate keep his public utterances to a minimum. Hence the studied taciturnity of his RTÉ interview prior to the Limerick game, a brief encounter which bore all the symptoms of prolonged exposure to Travis Bickle addressing his mirror, and his no-show at the first Clare media night.

Yet on All-Ireland Monday, still in an understandable slough of despond on foot of his charges’ failure to close it out the previous afternoon, he struck a discordant note; Clare as "small fry", the imminence of the U21 final "not helping" preparations for the replay, etc. If it wasn’t quite defeatist talk, it wasn’t upbeat stuff either. Worse, it was splendidly avoidable.

The next time Davy finds himself in a similar situation, the correct course of action is to lie back and think of his former manager, our old friend from Feakle. Loughnane wouldn’t moan about small fry or irritating under-age fixtures. Loughnane wouldn’t have allowed himself to. Instead he’d have grabbed the nearest loudhailer and invited the world to bring on Cork again, followed by Manchester United, Real Madrid and the entire Chinese army.

One potential scales-tipper in the coming years is the fact that Clare, unlike Limerick in the early noughties and Tipperary lately, are working off two discrete victorious All-Ireland U21 outfits: those of 2009 and of 2012-13. The 2009 edition have already gone beyond the specifics of their job, according to 2009 U21 manager John Minogue, by supplying "a new bloodline — lads from Cratloe and Clonlara and such places", to the county panel.

But Minogue believes that the best may be yet to come.

"The lads from 2009 were bigger and stronger," he says. "And being fair about it, we sneaked late wins that year against Galway in the semi-final and Kilkenny in the final. But the under-21s from last year and this year have a wider range of athleticism and skill and may end up contributing more senior players. And if Conor Ryan can continue his development, we’ll have someone at centre-back we haven’t had since Seánie McMahon. An inspirational figure to anchor the team for years to come."

The years to come seemed waste of breath? Surely not. In grief or in glory, they begin at 7pm tomorrow.