Sometimes the outcome of a game comes down to nothing more complicated than ABC.
The better team, the one with the greater aggregation of skill, wins. Easy as. Or, if that’s a bit too simplistic for your taste, then the match is won by the team whose management has produced them to outperform the other crowd on the day. Last Sunday was a bit of both. Clare very good, Limerick awful and quite a job to identify where exactly the dividing line lay.
Davy Fitz produced a team that performed. John Allen produced a team that did nothing of the sort. That was the wellspring of it. Everything flowed from there.
Sometimes we get so obsessed about tactics that we over-deconstruct, as if to convince ourselves that the outcome of every game must automatically be the result of some deep and cunning plan by the winners’ management, overlooking the reality of occasions when one team plays well and the other, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, plays poorly. This was such an afternoon. Dublin hurled really well seven days earlier and were devastated afterwards. Limerick will be devastated because they didn’t hurl at all.
The first half was a case of everything that could go wrong going wrong, or near enough. Ten wides; Declan Hannon’s free-taking meltdown; Seamus Hickey, their sweeper around midfield, off injured after 14 minutes; the concession of a messy route one goal to a team not noted for scoring goals; and two of their attacking subs used up by the 32nd minute. Change free-takers and we’ll fight you again.
Even the opening passages set the alarm bells chiming. Paudie O’Brien directed a low diagonal ball in to Seanie Tobin in Limerick’s first attack. Tobin is quick and nippy, but Domhnall O’Donovan left him for dead. Moments later the Munster champions dozed off as Colin Ryan switched a free across the field for Patrick Donnellan to gallop forward and open the scoring.
One team sharp and focused and tuned in. The other team emphatically not. Limerick the hurling equivalent of meat and two veg, as we said on Saturday? Here they were horribly undercooked. Whatever they did and didn’t do in the interim, however pure their intentions, the five-week break was mishandled. The sight of Allen and his selectors in conclave at half-time, moreover, suggested that one eventuality they hadn’t planned for was being seven points down at half-time.
To which one can only respond: if not, why not? The day happened for Limerick but the game didn’t, not unlike a team that suffered a heavy defeat on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. “Er, can we pretend that never happened and start all over again next Saturday?” Swansea City will have the opportunity to do so. Allen and his troops will not.
And so long-suffering Limerick fans became even longer suffering Limerick fans and 40 years of hurt will next year be 41. The Pet Shop Boys may well be closet Treaty men. What have I done to deserve this indeed.
If there’s any sliver of consolation for the losers it may be that the passage of time will show that defeat to this Clare team should be regarded as no stain. Whichever platform it pulls into on September 8, the train is running well ahead of schedule. With every outing their decision-making improves, their accuracy is honed and a couple of edges get planed off. The 12 second-half wides against Kilkenny at Cusack Park in March are a memory now.
Even if one of the steps forward is followed every now and then by two steps back, inevitable in a developing team, familiarity with Davy’s system has bred not contempt but competence and confidence.
Donnellan, who gave away a goal against Waterford in the Munster quarter-final, gave away a point in the first half here by hitting a clearance straight to Paul Browne. It was an example of the collateral damage Davy’s system entails and it was unavoidable. Clare supporters will grimace but the players don’t, confident they’ll get it right with the next ball.
On Sunday they adhered to the grand strategy without being enslaved by it. It was as though their relocation to Croke Park encouraged them to hurl from the soul as well as from the brain, with the deployment of Donnellan as a mopper-upper behind Conor Ryan at centre-back affording a communal licence to roam.
David McInerney charged up the field early in the second half, made it as far as the Limerick 45m line and got in a shot that was blocked down. McInerney, in case you didn’t know, is the Clare full-back. What’s more, he can keep charging upfield till the cows come home, safe in the knowledge they have any number of house-sitters behind him.
Days will come when Clare play badly, but will have Tony Kelly or Podge Collins to haul them through. Last Sunday wasn’t such a day. A winning tally of 1-22 and only five wides? Loughnane’s Clare would have needed 40 shots to hit 1-22 and would have driven 17 of them wide (not a slight on them, one hastens to add. Their ceaseless struggle to overcome their shortcomings was one of the myriad features that made Loughnane’s Clare so fascinating). The result means Cork will be required to treat the final as rather more of an intellectual exercise than would have been the case had Limerick won. Clare themselves will, unlike Limerick and probably Dublin, have other and better chances of September glory in future. But why not win the damn thing now that they can?
As for Limerick, they’ll always have the Gaelic Grounds on July 14. But their supineness on Sunday will haunt them forever. Them and those hardy, faithful, unrewarded supporters. So tell me: what have I, what have I, what have I...