If Kilkenny had won the All-Ireland U21 hurling title, of course they’d have celebrated but it meant so much more to Clare as a county to win.
I must mention the wonderful support that Clare had in Croke Park. To see the young and old running on to the field after their 0-15 to 0-14 success just proves that this team, with their heart and never-say-die attitude, has won over the Banner county supporters in a big way. Clare people will always support a team with real spirit. One man I was delighted to see there was Mick Leahy, who hurled with Clare and with Munster in the fifties. Mick now living in Cork, was a loyal follower in the 90’s and it was just great to see him there again.
Every county has true diehards – it just seems that Clare have more than most. I said on Saturday that my heart said Clare and it was certainly heart that won this game. I met several Kilkenny people after the match and while nobody likes losing an All Ireland final, they were more than gracious in defeat and I would expect no less forms such a great hurling county. I must say this about the impact of the Clare management team. The last time Clare reached an All-Ireland final was in 2002 and John Minogue and Cyril Lyons were there. Now they’re there again and Clare have won this title.
To progress, Clare hurling needs this management team in charge of the senior squad. Forget about all the powers struggles. If you have a good horse you put him into the Derby. It’s obvious the players and the management are gelling well together. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – put these guys in for three years and tell them they have that time. And even if they don’t win they’ll make the ground for whoever comes after. I don’t want this Clare team to end up like the minor team of 1997. There could have been more done then with that team. This team needs time and the best of handling.
Lyons, Minogue, Alan Dunne and Sean O’Halloran got everything absolutely spot on at Croke Park yesterday. They had the team prepared fantastically. The defence yesterday did not play flamboyantly, but as a defence should play – as a unit. The management had them ready to close down the spaces and the full-back line of Eamonn Glynn, Cian Dillon and Ciaran O’Doherty did wonderfully well. Outside them Domhnall O’Donovan, Nicky O’Connell and James Gunning (while he was on) gave great support.
The one standout fact is they conceded just one free from inside their own 65. That’s utter discipline and it’s achieved on the training field – and I don’t just mean physical preparation. Cyril, John and the lads got into the players’ heads. The mental as well as the physical preparation was spot on.
I have to mention outstanding goalkeeper Donal Tuohy – what a save he made from Richie Hogan. In midfield Enda Barrett and especially Cormac O’Donovan were excellent. Their father Sean O’Donovan hurled with Kilmallock. We’re eternally grateful that he came to live in Clonlara and produced two gems in Cormac and his brother Domhnall.
But one man I want to earmark is centre forward John Conlon, who was fantastic. Brilliant on the ball, three points from play and fouled a number of times also. Colin Ryan was excellent also. Though expectations of senior players on an U21 team are always high, it’s not easy to come up to Croke Park and keep your nerve with free after free – especially one from about 65 metres to draw the game.
One man who didn’t hit top form at all was Darach Honan but I have really great time for this guy. Darach was suffering flu all week, was on antibiotics and also carried a leg injury. You always know when a lad is carrying an injury or an illness and even though he didn’t hit the high spots yesterday, Clare wouldn’t have been in the final only for Honan.
Onto Kilkenny. Their full back line of Paul Murphy, Paddy Nolan and Colin Fogarty were especially strong. David Langton and Lester Ryan in the half back line played reasonably well. And as we knew coming in, Mark Kelly at midfield is a fine hurler. But their forwards hit 13 wides. Of course, there was massive pressure being applied by the Clare defence but their centre-forward Mark Bergin will know himself he should have steadied himself a bit before shooting some of his wides. And if Darach Honan went into the game carrying a knock, Richie Hogan was obviously in the same boat. But the Kilkenny forward will be questioning himself today. If Kilkenny had won, that would have been five wins this decade.
Clare? Well. the players will have to be reminded it’s only the start of their careers, to keep their feet on the ground and not let anybody destroy their future with excessive praise. We all know of teams that won three or four U21 titles and got nowhere but there is a great future here – if they want that great future. I’ve enjoyed many journeys from Dublin but last night was one of my most enjoyable.