WHEN I look back on my Clare career, the one day I’ll always remember – even though we were beaten – was the 1996 Munster semi-final against Limerick. The match was an epic but I can still remember Ger Loughnane’s speech to us in the bus before we entered the Gaelic Grounds.
As we turned down past the old Davin Arms, where the road was wedged with people on a scorcher of a day, Loughnane told us to look out and cherish what we were about to live. ‘When we heard from our fathers and grandfathers about what the Munster championship really means, this is it.’
Yesterday reminded me so much of that day, and the sentiment Loughnane spoke about. This is what the Munster championship is all about; a packed house; incredible atmosphere; savage intensity; neither team willing to yield an inch. An unbelievable afternoon.
On the way out of the ground after the game, I met so many of the people who always hang around the Park after Clare games, win or lose, and they were just buzzing. It was a special day but it was also provided absolute vindication for the round-robin format.
When I went in to Clarecastle senior training yesterday morning, I asked a few of the minors if they were playing Eire Óg because I spotted a few red and white tops gathering around the place. They were playing Mungret, which sums up everything that is good about the round robin because it gives people everywhere the chance to make the most out of the day.
Ennis was hopping before and after the game and the match lived up to its billing and the expectation that preceded it. It wasn’t an absolute epic in terms of scoring and high quality, but in terms of intensity and entertainment, you couldn’t have asked for any more. It was breath-taking at times with the noise and the atmosphere – talk about a throwback to the old days. Savage stuff altogether.
I know Limerick made changes. I knew they would leave Aaron Gillane out of the action, while Cian Lynch could be back in three weeks time. But they didn’t hold back. And Clare matched them head on.
I met a few of the Clare lads after the game. They looked spent but the chests were out and there is real pride and belief now in this group and around the county. We know that we’ve won nothing yet but it is great times again for Clare people – and it’s even more special because we didn’t think these days were possible again so soon.
Clare knew beforehand that a draw was as good as a win. Limerick could have snatched it at the death but, while your heart was in your mouth as Limerick launched that last desperate attack, it was hard to know how there were only three minutes of injury-time. It took that long alone for the subs to come on and off. How long did it even take Colm Lyons to consult with his umpires and linesman before sending off Gearóid Hegarty?
You have to give great credit to Clare the way they faced into the breeze in the second half after being level at half-time, but they took the game to Limerick straight away. Tony Kelly gave an exhibition but plenty of lads stepped up to help him. Ryan Taylor struggled for long periods but he came good at the end. Shane Meehan made a difference too and nabbed a great score when Clare badly needed it.
It’s not wrong to say that these look the two best teams in the country at the moment. Every day is different but Clare’s consistency has been remarkable. Brian Lohan seems to be able to get a tune out of them every time they take to the field in a match that matters.
TK deserved man-of-the-match but Diarmaid Byrnes wasn’t far behind him. The Patrickswell man is having some season. Even the way he stepped up to that last free, you never felt he’d miss it – it was like he was just tapping it over from the 20-metre line.
You couldn’t argue with the draw but while Clare will feel they could have won the game, it would have been a disaster if they had lost it at the death. It would have been easy to picture the Limerick hordes leaving the Park afterwards. ‘Ah yeah, ye can send off whoever ye like but we will still bate ye’.
When these sides first met this year back in January, Limerick arrived out to the Park with a second team and gave Clare a whipping. You were nearly saying to yourself that day that Limerick were gone so strong that no team would live with them. But Clare have shown that they can. And they’ll get a chance now in three weeks to prove it all again.
It’s amazing the difference 70 minutes can make in hurling. Yesterday morning, a lot of people in Cork were nearly expecting Kieran Kingston to have his resignation statement ready after losing to Waterford. Kieran isn’t out of the woods just yet but there is some contrast between the mood this morning and yesterday, not just for Kieran, but for the players.
And the whole of the county.
After looking like they needed a miracle, all Cork need to do now is beat Tipperary next weekend. That won’t be easy but at least it’s in their hands and Cork are not looking for favours off Clare or anyone else – which is what they looked like they’d need to have any chance of survival prior to yesterday.
This was a shock but I wasn’t surprised. When I was down in Dungarvan last week for the Examiner live podcast, I could sense the tension and concern. And the pressure.
I felt that the locals were more concerned with Cork and how bad they were going than focussing on Waterford and what they needed to do to make sure they took care of business. While it was hard to say that Cork would win, it made absolute sense that they would at least come out and fight, especially when their whole season was on the line. And particularly when they were taking so much flak and grief from their own crowd within the county.
Once Mark Coleman settled into the game and Darragh Fitzgibbon found his groove, Cork really got motoring. I’ve been saying for a while now that Tim O’Mahony is more of a forward than a defender and you’d have to admire the management the way they took off Patrick Horgan and threw O’Mahony up front as his replacement.
Hoggy got the all-time scoring record yesterday, which confirmed him as one of the all-time greats. But I said here earlier in the year that maybe Hoggie – and Cork – would be better served with him as an impact sub at this stage of his career. And that may be the route Cork need to take at this stage.
Alan Connolly also showed that he is more than capable of picking up the slack if they do decide to use Hoggie as an impact player. He got two goals and could have had a third.
I’m delighted for Kieran, especially after all the abuse he took. But Cork still have to finish the job now. And that might not be as easy as everyone expects it to be next Sunday.