Limerick were brilliant but Cork will be asking hard questions

At the end of the match yesterday, I shook hands with Dave Punch, the former Limerick hurler, who works for RTÉ. He asked me if I saw the attendance. I did, I said — 71,000. Dave corrected me. ‘No, Dalo, 71,073.’ 

Limerick were brilliant but Cork will be asking hard questions

Dave could already detect a hidden link back to Limerick’s last All-Ireland but there was imagery and romance and nostalgia sprinkled all over Croke Park yesterday. And huge, huge emotion.

At the final whistle, ‘The Cranberries’ song ‘Linger’ boomed — no soothed — out over the loudspeakers.

We criticise the GAA often enough but it was a lovely touch by Croke Park to think of that great lady from Ballybricken, who passed away earlier this year.

It was a beautiful moment but one which perfectly captured one of the greatest weekend’s in the GAA’s 134-year history. It was a mad, crazy, epic, romantic and perfect 24 hours.

I even managed to squeeze in a challenge game with Kilmacud Crokes against James Stephens yesterday morning.

My head was bursting with hurling by the end of yesterday evening but I was still so high on the adrenaline of it all that I’d have gladly taken another hit today.

The Galway Races will have to try and compensate today but the sport of Kings — or any sport in the world — wouldn’t hold a candle to the flames of brilliance and emotion of a game that lit up our hearts yesterday, and which has burned like a furnace in our souls all summer.

It was incredible stuff. You couldn’t have made up the drama on Saturday, and yet yesterday managed to surpass it.

When Cork were six points up with eight minutes to play, John Mullane said on RTÉ Radio 1 that Limerick would have to get a goal to have any chance of getting something out of a match which, by that stage, looked gone from them.

Yet Limerick didn’t lose their heads. They kept their composure, and kept trying to do the right thing with the ball.

If they had started lobbing balls in looking for goals, Colm Spillane, Sean O’Donoghue and Damien Cahalane would have eaten it up.

Kyle Hayes rifled a great point on the sideline and then two Shane Dowling points suddenly had the deficit down to three.

Once, it gets back to just one score, the opposition begins to get insecure, and tight in themselves. And Limerick preyed on those insecurities like vultures.

Limerick had heroes everywhere. Dowling was a contender for man-of-the-match, even though he only came on in the second half.

Mikey Casey did some job on Patrick Horgan. Richie English and Sean Finn were brilliant beside him. Cian Lynch was superb.

It was fitting that so many of Limerick’s young players, which have come through the underage Academy, stood up and led the charge.

When the Limerick seniors went on strike in 2010, people like JP and Gerry McManus and Joe McKenna decided, ‘Hi, we’re not putting up with this crap anymore. This is going to be done right from now on.’

And it has been.

The academy was set up and I had the pleasure of working there for three years. Look at the squad today, and the quality Limerick had to bring on?

Most of it had come through the Academy; Dowling, Barry Nash, David Reidy, Peter Casey, Pat Ryan, Will O’Donoghue.

Cork had nothing like that quality to bring in when bodies started to tire and wilt. Daniel Kearney, who was immense, was carried off in normal time, before being reintroduced in extra-time, and then hauled off again, hardly able to walk.

At half-time in extra time, there was no way you could see Cork winning with the body language of the players. Especially when compared to the energy oozing out of Limerick fellas everywhere.

Aaron Gillane was excellent but they’ll have to start practising football in Patrickswell because he missed two goal chances with his boot.

I don’t know if he is dropping the hurley as he catches the ball but I think it’s a ploy to deceive the defender as he catches it with his spare hand.

It isn’t working — he also missed one with his boot against Kilkenny — but this crowd now don’t do panic. In the past, panic was almost inherently built into Limerick’s DNA when they went to Croke Park.

Graeme Mulcahy was taken off yesterday after scoring four points and running himself into the ground.

If that was the Limerick of old, the whole county would be roaring and shouting at John Kiely for pulling a player in that kind of scoring form. But it’s a bit like Jim Gavin now with the way they bring in the fresh legs, and huge firepower, to finish off the job.

Limerick were brilliant but Cork will be asking hard questions of themselves. Again. Two Munster titles have been followed up with hard semi-final defeats.

They looked in control late on but they couldn’t see the job out. There is something different about Limerick but Cork had no answer to them once they applied the heat.

It sets up some final now between Limerick and whoever wins on Sunday. I can’t wait for the replay to come around because anything is likely to happen from a championship that just keeps on giving. And giving.

On Saturday evening, I was in and out of the RTÉ box like a yo-yo. They were calling us in two minutes before full-time, and at half-time and full-time of extra-time, but the producers nearly had to throw a lasso around me to drag me in.

‘Give me a minute, just one more minute,’ I kept saying, as they were trying to mic us up. I didn’t want to miss a second.

I fancied Clare because I knew that they would perform. I don’t know what it is about Croke Park but we just love that place.

When it was 1-7 to 0-1, I was saying to myself, ‘What am I going to say now at half-time? But my faith was restored by the break. And by full-time, my heart was bursting with pride as a Clare-man.

I was in Beagh on the Clare-Galway border on Friday evening for a preview night. I was on a panel with Tony Considine, Kevin Broderick, Noel Lane and Niall Moran.

Lane was fierce confident early on. He could see nothing only a Galway win, and with a bit to spare too, but Tony and I were fierce upbeat.

‘I’m getting worried now,’ Noel said before the end of the night. ‘Because there is such confidence and energy coming from these two guys beside me.’

There was that inner confidence in all of us going to Croke Park but we still wondered deep down if Clare were good enough. We know they are now.

We know too that this group can do it in the real heat of war again too, which in fairness they have been doing all season.

The second half of the Munster final just inflated those doubts. The doubts returned again in waves in the first quarter but they really settled down when Clare made that tactical switch with Colm Galvin as the sweeper.

Once Galvin went into that hole, and Tony Kelly came deep, the two of them altered the direction of the match.

Eddie Brennan was asking me, ‘Is Kelly too far back?’ I didn’t think he was because he needs to be on the ball.

No matter where TK is, he makes something happen when he’s on the ball. And the two points he got were massive in that first half, especially in the circumstances.

Once Clare got their system in order, they were solid. Conor Cleary was excellent.

There may be this theory that you have to be from Clarecastle or Sixmilebridge or Doora-Barefield to be a Clare hurler but Cleary showed how a guy from Miltown-Malbay, a football heartland with no hurling tradition, can go in and mark Joe Canning, and do a good job at it. I was delighted for him.

Clare never panicked. They kept doing what this group are most comfortable with, working the ball through the lines, and steadily creating the chances.

The biggest issue though, with being nine points down is that it’s always a long way back until you get a goal. And Clare didn’t go ahead for the first time until they got the goal in the second half of extra-time.

Clare were brave in their decisions, on and off the pitch. That was evident in the Galvin switch, and the decision to bring on Aron Shanagher.

From having worked with him with the UL Freshers, I know the long and lonely hours Shanagher spent trying to make it back after the cruciate injury.

Getting back for the championship looked like an unrealistic target but to come on, fetch that ball, and stitch it in the net, was dream stuff.

Galway came straight up the pitch and created the goal chance for Jason Flynn but Donal Tuohy, who was brilliant again, did enough to put Flynn off and force him to fire it over the bar.

Some of Tuts’ early puckouts were nervy as Galway shut him down but it was often more down to poor first touch, and timing, than the goalkeeper’s radar being off.

And Tuohy’s restarts for the remainder of the game were top-drawer stuff.

When Gerry O’Connor was interviewed on RTÉ beforehand, he spoke about how relaxed the players were. The players’ first touch belied that observation and Galway were making hay on those mistakes and unforced errors.

Galway were playing like champions but sometimes when the underdogs get off to a bad start, but they can creep their way back into the match, it can be hard for the favourites to turn back that tide.

Clare had huge performances all over the field. Peter Duggan thundered into the match on Aidan Harte and was magnificent. The point he got in the second half of normal time was the score of the season.

John Conlon was immense again. He is definitely a front-runner for Hurler-of-the-Year at this stage.

He struggled on Daithi Burke in the first half but he was superb for the remainder of the game.

Four points and a couple of assists is a massive return off a guy like Burke.

I said on RTÉ beforehand that Clare’s bench looked stronger than Galway’s and it was.

Galway's Daithi Burke and David Reidy of Clare. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Galway's Daithi Burke and David Reidy of Clare. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

David Fitzgerald made a massive impact, especially for Jason McCarthy’s (another sub) equalising point. Ian Galvin was productive again too.

You just felt that Clare had all the momentum heading into extra-time but seven wides in the first half were a killer.

I appreciate that the conditions had turned desperate by that stage but some of those wides were mad misses.

If Clare had three wides and drove four balls into Conlon, Clare would surely have got something off that possession.

The one ball John got in that first half of extra-time, he won it and passed it off to Ian Galvin for a score.

I’d prefer if Clare were going back to Croke Park now on Sunday because our record is so good up there.

On the otherhand, Clare went to Thurles in June and beat Tipperary down there.

Most of these guys have great memories there too from their U-21 days — Clare won their three successive All-Irelands there.

So there is no reason why they can’t deliver another big performance there again now.

Galway will feel they can play better, especially with their conversion rates, but they also look like a team that is leaking gas now. And losing bodies.

Gearóid McInerney and Joe Canning have to be huge concerns for the replay. Clare seem to have more options now for next week.

But in this game, anything can happen. Literally anything.

Hurling is an absolute treasure. And, as a country and a people, we are just so lucky and privileged to have been given such a unique gift.

PaperTalk GAA Podcast: Hurling delirium, hurling overload, hurling snobbery, and a hurling documentary.

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