Clare hurling’s epochal days in the mid-nineties have looked more distant than ever these the past few years, yet yesterday they had another September Sunday to savour.
An engrossing Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21HC final swung the Banner’s direction by a slender one-point margin and the final whistle sparked riotous scenes. GAA regulations have tightened up since Clare hurling fans last staged pitch invasions, yet the initial resistance of stewards was worn down and Croke Park was invaded by a saffron and blue sea. Within minutes the architects of the triumph were bobbing up and down on the waves of supporters, and while the attendance of 25,924 may not have been comparable to the previous Sunday’s All-Ireland, the post-match joy was just as exuberant and heartfelt.
The Clare U21 narrative this year has been penned in a dazzling font, a first Munster title in July followed by a first All-Ireland crown in September, and the denouement tumbled from the same script. With the match balanced on a knife-edge at 0-14 apiece in the 60th minute, Clare midfielder Cormac O’Donovan stepped forward to settle an hour of ferociously intense play. O’Donovan collected near the Hogan Stand side of the pitch, stepped inside the clutches of the Kilkenny defence and bombed a huge shot up into the air. It took an eternity to drop but O’Donovan’s accuracy was true and the umpires unfurled the white flag in response.
Clare were almost there but in keeping with the tone of the match, Kilkenny launched one last pitch for parity. A swift team move in attack saw John Joe Farrell released in on goal, but Clare defensive duo Cian Dillon and Eamonn Glynn scrambled back to deny Farrell with Glynn executing the relieving clearance that sealed victory.
The day had begun well for Clare with positive news from the infirmary beforehand as Sean Collins and Darach Honan were both declared fit to start. Honan, who has been in devastating attacking form all year, looked a vital inclusion for Clare yet he transpired to be a peripheral presence. Injury hampered his play, but Kilkenny full-back Paddy Nolan also stuck to him like an adhesive throughout.
Into that attacking void, Clare were thankful for the starring inputs of John Conlon and Colin Ryan. In the first-half Ryan’s free-taking was exemplary, as he maintained his usual high standards of consistency to chalk up seven points. In the second-half chances were scarcer, but Ryan still kept his nerve to lash over an 80 yard free in the 51st minute free and then repeated the trick from a similar distance in the 59th minute.
Conlon, whose promise has been bubbling under all summer, exploded into view on the biggest stage. In the first-half his lung-bursting runs caused great anxiety in the Kilkenny defence and lead to them resorting to illegal means to halt his progress. Then Conlon got in on the scoring act in the second-half rattling over three points from play when the pressure was at its greatest.
The Conlon and Ryan act, allied to a lovely effort from Caimin Morey, had enabled Clare to lead 0-8 to 0-6 at the interval. Kilkenny had struggled to establish a run of dominance as the Clare defence compressed the exchanges to stifle Kilkenny attackers in possession. The Leinster champions relied on the long-range marksmanship of midfielder Mark Kelly and wing-forward John Mulhall to land scores as Clare’s defence lead by the brilliant Cian Dillon, Ciaran O’Doherty and Nickey O’Connell repelled them.
But Kilkenny emerged for the second-half in a determined and imposing mood. Senior star Richie Hogan, well policed in the corner by O’Doherty in the first-half, was shifted out to centre-forward and his impact was far greater there as he adroitly filled the role of both playmaker and scoretaker. Colin Fennelly and James Nolan sparkled on the right flank, while in defence Nolan and the magnificent Paul Murphy placed the shackles on the Clare attack.
As the action ebbed and flowed, Kilkenny had crept 0-11 to 0-9 ahead by the 43rd minute. A minute later Cormac O’Donovan dashed through the centre for Clare but his rocket shot for goal flew over rather than under the bar. Kilkenny resumed their period of pressure but the interventions of Clare’s composed netminder Donal Tuohy were critical particularly when he tipped over a whizzing bullet by Hogan in the 49th minute.
A goal then would have killed off Clare but encouraged by their voluble support, they roared back in the contention in the finale. A monster free from Ryan and a great shot by Conlon tied it up at 0-12 apiece in the 52nd minute. Conlon then lobbed over the lead score for Clare but Kilkenny’s response was rapid as Hogan and Kelly shoved them back into the ascendancy. But the sense of destiny enveloping the Clare setup carried right through until the final whistle with Ryan and O’Donovan supplying the requisite late scores for victory.
Scorers for Clare: C Ryan 0-9 (0-8f, 0-1 ‘65), J Conlon 0-3, C O’Donovan 0-2, C Morey 0-1.
Kilkenny: R Hogan 0-5 (0-1f), M Kelly 0-3, J Mulhall, C Fennelly, J Nolan 0-2 each.
Subs for Clare: C McGrath for Tierney (44), P O’Connor for Morey (49), E Hayes for Gunning (53).
Subs for Kilkenny: N Cleere for Bergin (50)
Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork).