In Croke Park yesterday they overturned Dublin in the ESB All-Ireland MHC semi-final and in the process banished the memories of their early season reversal in Dungarvan as they ensured the county will contest it’s first national decider at this grade since 1997.
There, on September 5, they will face a Kilkenny team that breezed into the final last week by a massive 19 points. Clare’s victory here was considerably tighter.
They nursed a two-point lead entering the dying embers and were hugely relieved to see Dublin substitute Robert Hardy’s blinding drive in the 62nd minute whistle over the bar. Thus, when referee Eamonn Hassen called a halt to the action, Clare had just a point to spare, but they should have been further ahead.
By the 18th minute Clare led 0-8 to 0-1 and while they never enjoyed such a substantial advantage again, they still inserted daylight between the sides during the rest of the match. In the second-half they led by five points in the 35th minute, four points in the 48th minute and again by four points in the 53rd minute.
But Dublin rallied on each occasion and Clare’s final point arrived eight minutes before the final whistle.
The two goals Dublin plundered in the second-half were integral in ensuring their challenge for honours remained on stable foundations.
The first in the 36th minute was sloppy from Clare’s viewpoint and opportunist from Dublin’s. Cormac Costello floated in a sideline from the right wing that Clare goalkeeper Ronan Taaffe grasped, but the sliothar spilled from his hand and Emmet O Conghaile was on hand to bundle a shot to the net.
The second in the 53rd minute was a well-taken strike with Costello creating the space to bang a low shot to the bottom corner.
In the face of adversity, Clare’s response to the concession of each goal was admirable. After O Conghaile’s strike they reeled off three of the next four points in the game and when Costello goaled, Clare simply went downfield and split the posts three times in a row. Those scoring bursts were essential to their ultimate triumph and ensured their claims to a final berth were legitimate. But they still had to sweat anxiously heading down the stretch, a point admitted by joint-manager Gerry O’Connor afterwards.
“We’ve made life hard for ourselves all year. We got a great start, dominating puckouts and winning all the breaks but Dublin are a hugely physical team and they ground us down. They made a lot of changes, brought in Hetherton inside in the full-forward line and pushed us to the limit. We’ve been conceding goals all year and each time it has driven us on. That’s the strength to this team all year, that in adversity we really respond.”
In the early exchanges, Clare’s display was spellbinding. Enda Boyce opened brightly and went on to give a fantastic display at wing-back, while midfielder Tony Kelly was involved all over the pitch, adorning his work with two classy points.
Their forwards looked dangerous, with Daire Keane and particularly Niall Arthur in lethal form. Arthur wound up with eight points next to his name and he maintained the high standards he set early on,
Keane could have inflicted further pain on Dublin in the 18th minute after the impressive Paudge Collins played him into space, but Eamonn Dillon diverted his goalbound shot over the bar. Dublin rallied significantly before the interval and managed to outscore Clare 0-6 to 0-1 in that time frame.
Centre-forward Ciaran Kilkenny lobbed over a couple of beautiful points while Conor Murphy and Danny Sutcliffe gave strong displays as well. They only trailed 0-9 to 0-7 at half-time and were very much in the hunt.
But Clare’s hurling was at a consistently higher pitch in the second-half. Arthur fired over a pair of frees straight after the break and Cathal Malone lashed over a shot from distance to see them 0-12 to 1-7 in front.
Even when O Conghaile hit the net, Clare kept their heads and were aided by Arthur continuing to shine in attack, and substitute Aaron Cunningham producing a dazzling cameo that yielded two lovely points.
To their credit Dublin kept charging at their opponents with Dean Flood’s freetaking very accurate and John Hetherton making a big impression when introduced at full-forward. Costello’s goal instilled their challenge with hope but Clare’s composure was critical in sealing a final date with Kilkenny. Banner joint-manager Donal Moloney admits they face a serious challenge in that encounter but is eagerly awaiting the day.
“We’re delighted to be in the final and facing Kilkenny. It’s a great honour and privilege to be in the last two in Ireland, we’re really going to look forward to it. Obviously their score and performance last weekend was exceptional, but they don’t hold any fear for us. We’ve had a few games against them early on in the year. It’s a replay of last year’s U21 final so we’re going to come here and set out our stall to do ourselves justice on the day.”
Scorers for Clare: N Arthur 0-8 (4f); D Keane 0-3; T Kelly, A Cunningham 0-2 each; C Galvin, C Malone, P Collins, J Shanahan, D O’Halloran 0-1 each.
Scorers Dublin: C Costello, E O Conghaile 1-1 each; D Flood 0-4 (3f); C Kilkenny 0-3; J Hetherton 0-2 (2f); G Whelan, R Hardy 0-1 each.
Clare substitutes: A Cunningham for Malone (45), A Mulready for D O’Halloran (54)
Dublin substitutes: N Maguire for Kelly (27), J Hetherton for Whelan (37), R Hardy for McCarthy (43), N Ryan for Flood (58)
Referee: E Hassen (Derry).