After last weekend’s win for the ages over Galway, the question was whether the Leesiders would have the energy for another outing. And as it happened, they had the legs to beat the Banner to the finishing tape.
Clare arrived in Semple Stadium with a plan. Ronan Curran wasn’t allowed to dominate early on – in fact, he wasn’t even left in the centre – and the two corner-backs were dragged around Semple Stadium. Niall Gilligan drifted left and right, but wherever he went he stayed in the zone, chipping in five first-half points.
The Banner were sharper everywhere in the first half apart from the scoreboard. They struck seven wides in the first quarter alone, but they made Cork work hard for their scores, and Mike McNamara’s side had five points to spare as half-time approached.
Then Gerry Quinn’s long free eluded the Cork defence, bouncing to sit up on the edge of the small square like a Slazenger looking to be volleyed over the net, but Barry Nugent’s flick was delicate and telling: goal. Gilligan added a point and Clare were nine clear. The effect of a third weekend out in-a-row for Cork was clear, and the zest shown last Saturday week was in short supply.
“Obviously we were disappointed,” said Cork captain John Gardiner afterwards. “Especially the scores we gave away in the first half. We upped it in the second half. But we never thought it was gone.”
Timmy McCarthy’s goal on the resumption – sandwiched by Ben O’Connor and Patrick Horgan points – was the spark. Cork manager Gerald McCarthy had sent on the Castlelyons man to shake things up, and his touch didn’t desert him with his second change. Kieran ‘Fraggy’ Murphy read the rebound from a Patrick Cronin shot better than anyone else for a goal and three Ben O’Connor points sent Cork down the home stretch in good fettle.
Clare didn’t die easy – Niall Gilligan cut the deficit with two late points – but Neil Ronan, another substitute, hit another point from the wing to give the Rebels a 2-19 to 2-17 win. John Gardiner was asked to sum up the men he leads: “It’s a special group of players, you have leaders all over the field, lads who’ve been around a long time. They show professionalism in the way they prepare for games, and it showed out there again. Lads 30 years of age were carrying us again.”
Clare manager Mike McNamara was frank as always at the final whistle. “The people who had the answers on Friday should have got in touch with me,” he said with a pained grin. “We let the match behind us, realistically. We were there, we should at least have snatched a draw, but it wasn’t to be.”
Cork now face Kilkenny, and the two-week break will no doubt be savoured like a month in the Maldives. No truth to suggestions that tickets for the semi-final will be accompanied by complementary beta-blockers. Be there if your heart can take it. And you’ll only know if your heart can take if you’re there.
The 37,812 present got their money’s worth yesterday, as Waterford edged out Wexford in the first quarter-final, 2-19 to 3-15. The sides emerged at the same time – to some jostling between a couple of players. Presumably we’ll be spared several months of disciplinary constipation.
Waterford began well, but Wexford boss John Meyler obviously studied the video of Wexford’s 2004 Leinster final win over Kilkenny: his players used more diagonals than a draughts player, and Stephen Doyle got on the end of one peachy Michael Jacob delivery to grab an early goal. When Jacob and Diarmuid Lyng added points Wexford were buzzing.
Waterford stayed in touch though and were a point up when Dan Shanahan was fouled near the Wexford goal. With the form he’s in, little wonder Eoin Kelly went for goal. And little wonder he buried it.
Wexford didn’t read the script at the break. Ten minutes after the cup of tea they had two more goals, through a deflection off Brian Phelan and another terrific finish from Stephen Doyle. Doc O’Connor was dominating, and it looked like another Slaney ambush.
“We gave up two easy goals today,” said Davy Fitzgerald afterwards. “You can’t do that. If we have any ambition you can’t do that.”
What you can do, however, is to respond in kind. A John Mullane shot didn’t have the legs to make it over the bar, and Dan Shanahan reached a hand up and when his shot skittered into the goal off the goalpost, it was like 2007 all over again.
Wexford were defiant – Damien Fitzhenry put a late penalty over the bar – but Eoin Kelly’s last, glorious point, from the sideline, made it safe.
Fitzgerald was his usual straight-talking self afterwards. “I said the last day we’d have to be better,” said Fitzgerald. “We weren’t, and we were lucky to get away with it. We’ll have to improve, but having said that, we were under pressure, but these lads are battling hard. We’re in an All-Ireland semi-final. Would they have taken that in mid-May? And who’ll give us a chance against Tipperary, who haven’t lost a game all year?”
Feel free to take that one with some salt, of course. The action now moves to Croke Park, but Thurles, the venue that keeps on giving, didn’t let us down for the last two weekends. Any chance Liberty Square could be temporarily relocated to Jones’ Road?