IT’S been a tough week for romantics. Kilkenny will face Cork in an old-firm All-Ireland senior hurling final after beating Clare 2-21 to 1-16 yesterday in Croke Park.
There were 70,978 in the stadium, a fitting crowd for what looked like a last hurrah for a great team. Unlike their Dublin counterparts, yesterday’s spectators took the start time as non-negotiable, and just as well: as bad beginnings go, Clare’s yesterday would take some beating.
Inside five minutes Henry Shefflin had goaled from close range and won two frees from Brian Lohan, which he converted himself. An Eddie Brennan effort had come back from the woodwork and Derek Lyng had pointed from play. “We gave them an awful soft goal,” said Clare boss Anthony Daly later. “It was just one of those things — if Brian (Lohan) approached that ball another 10 times he’d have picked it up and cleared it, but Henry doesn’t miss those ones. It was a nightmare start, but in fairness to our lads, they fought back.”
They did: Clare got a bridgehead through Niall Gilligan and Tony Griffin points before a long Seanie McMahon delivery caused havoc in the Kilkenny defence: the sliotar rolled goalwards out of a crowd, so slowly you could see whether it was an approved brand or not, and Gilligan dived to nudge it home.
Uncharacteristically, Kilkenny yielded more goal chances: Derek Quinn was denied by James McGarry on nine minutes, and six minutes later McGarry saved from Niall Gilligan. Even JJ Delaney missed a ball that freed Gilligan on 16 minutes and gave up a free as a result.
Clare were roaring, and for 10 minutes it was like 1995 again.
Significantly Seanie McMahon’s deliveries were by-passing the Kilkenny half-backs to find their last line of defence unusually indecisive. Clare outscored Kilkenny, seven points to four, as the first half settled, and the Cats were relying on Shefflin to rove outfield for his own ball to keep in touch. He did so: the sides went in level at the break, 1-10 each, thanks to a soaring Tony Carmody point from halfway — and Shefflin’s 1-5.
On the resumption Clare withdrew Diarmuid McMahon to bolster their midfield, but that left Alan Markham and Gerry Quinn outnumbered up front; Cats’ midfielder Cha Fitzpatrick carried on as he had done, his crisp delivery keeping his forwards well nourished. No-one enjoyed himself more than Shefflin. In keeping with his nickname, he was regal, notching three points as the game moved towards its turning point. Kilkenny won a 48th-minute penalty which was overturned when Eddie Brennan raised a supplementary question with Davy Fitzgerald, and Clare looked to break out.
But the bash ball rolled to Eoin McCormack, whose shot squirted past Fitzgerald. That put five points between them, and though Clare tried hard, Shefflin kept them at bay with long-range points.
“It’s a terrific achievement for Henry,” said Kilkenny boss Brian Cody afterwards. “Scoring 1-13 is serious but he’d be the first to tell you it’s a team game.
He works like a dog for the team as well, which is Henry’s biggest strength.”
Cody batted back a high, dropping question about stopping Cork’s three-in-a-row bid. “A lot of people are saying that that’s our agenda, but our agenda isn’t about denying Cork anything — our agenda is about ourselves. Cork are deservedly going for three in a row, they’re a fantastic team, and when you consider how many times they’ve come out on the right side of a one or two-point winning margin this year alone, it’s a true reflection of their greatness.
“That’s not to play them up or to play us down. It’s a Kilkenny-Cork final, and history suggests that it’ll be a very decent game.”
Cody described the Clare players as true hurlers, and true heroes, and if yesterday was the final curtain call for some of them, they left with a bang, not a whimper.
McMahon turned the clock back with six points and Colin Lynch raged against the black and amber all day, though Frank Lohan’s frustration earned him a red card. Saddest of all, when Lohan senior took a heavy tumble out by the Cusack the medical staff hovering nearby had the look of pallbearers waiting to bury a great career. The red helmet was put back on, however, and Clare’s full back saw the game out. Their manager faced the inevitable question about player retirements afterwards.
“That’s for them to decide,” said Anthony Daly. “I’ve probably made up my own mind that it’s my last year, but at the moment things are a bit emotional now. I won’t make any final calls this evening but over the next few days we’ll have a think about it.”
In the end the conventional wisdom, that some of the Clare veterans would be hurling on instinct, reacting from memory, was proven right.
But what instincts. What memories.
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