Already trailing by 0-11 to 0-7, Paul Ryan pointed the resultant free and a minute later David Treacy added another Dublin point, leaving the home side trailing by six, reduced to 14 men, facing a seemingly impossible situation.
So what the hell happened? A whole number of things, and not one of those in favour of Dublin. First, the man disadvantage very quickly disappeared. No, Dublin didn’t have a man sent off, the Clare supporters in the announced crowd of (9,827 but sounded like twice that!) found their voice. The echoes of the old Clare roar began to ring around Cusack Park and they found their 15th man.
Then there was the Clare sideline. Davy Fitzgerald and his selectors had already made several very gutsy calls in their team selection with championship debuts for last year’s minor stars Seadna Morey and Tony Kelly. Now they went one better and dropped back an extra defender to leave themselves short not one attacker but two.
However, they knew their men and in Darach Honan and John Conlon especially they had two guys who were worth four. As the game entered its critical phase they also threw two other youngsters into the cauldron, Colm Galvin and Aaron Cunningham and both thrived.
“We have lads there from 18 to 21,” said selector Louis Mulqueen. “That’s the way we have to go in Clare, build on these lads.”
Finally, but by far most important of all, the players themselves. This county produced storied teams and storied hurlers of the past but if this group stay on this path, a path plotted by Davy Fitzgerald and his professional management team, trust in what they’re being told and in their own ability, they will create their own bit of history.
This wasn’t hurling the Kilkenny way, no man an island and every ball a battle. This wasn’t hurling the old Cork way, making intelligent use of possession. This wasn’t hurling the even older Tipperary way, hip-to-hip with no quarter given or asked.
This was hurling the way hurling has always been waiting to be played: no man an island and every ball a battle and making intelligent use of possession and hip-to-hip with no quarter asked or given.
It relies on any number of qualities but above all it relies on the basics of hurling – first touch, mastery of the fundamentals but at ramming speed, fitness, instant and determined support of the man adjacent to you, and courage. Clare had most of those elements in place on Saturday evening. They didn’t have them all, still learning, still growing, but they had enough to overcome this particular challenge.
Dublin came to Ennis to bully this young Clare team, muscle them off Cusack Park, and once they had settled (Clare got an early 0-3 to 0-0 lead) that was what Dublin began to do, out-muscle and out-hustle Clare as they came back to outscore their hosts by 0-11 to 0-4 from there to the break.
It should have been more, much more, but the same fatal flaws Dublin showed against Kilkenny were in evidence again here. A poor first touch (Alan McCrabbe’s failure to control a lovely through ball from Liam Rushe in the 24th minute example number one), lack of confidence in their shooting, a succession of poor wides and a couple of balls dropped short.
Those failings would continue to plague Dublin all the way to the end, no confidence to shoot from distance in the second half when faced with those wall of defenders. Worse though for Dublin, their physical dominance too was lost. “Physically I have no fear, I think we’re as strong as anyone,” said wing-back Brendan Bugler.
“It’s safe to say we’ve done as much work as anyone, we’ve a great setup at the moment, a pleasure to be involved.”
So it was that Clare won this game. The critical moment came in the 53rd minute, a 20m free very cleverly won by Darach Honan when he embraced the clumsy challenge of Peter Kelly and went to ground, then converted by Tony Kelly.
“An 18-year-old,” Louis pointed out, “the spirit and confidence taking his points. The courage then to take his goal, to go for it at such a crucial stage, down a man. That was unstoppable.”
Then to Kelly add Sean Collins, Honan, Conor McGrath, Conlon, point-scorers all in that mighty second half, work-horses Jonny Clancy and Fergal Lynch. Also add goalkeeper Patrick Kelly and the entire defence, heroes to a man.
“It’s the spirit they’re playing with,” said Louis.
“They’re up at half-five some mornings for training. These lads will do anything for the Clare jersey. They’re so proud of that crest. It says ‘First into battle, last out’ and that’s the motto of this crop of players, this is what we hope to bring forward.”
Scorers for Clare: C McGrath 0-5 (4fs), T Kelly 1-2 (1-0f), J Conlon 0-4, D Honan, S Collins 0-2 each, S Morey 0-1.
Scorers for Dublin: P Ryan 0-9 (7fs, 2 65s), M O’Brien 0-2, D Tierney, D Sutcliffe, N Corcoran, S Lambert, A McCrabbe (f) 0-1 each.
Subs for Clare: P O’Connor for Cooney (inj. 23), C Galvin for Clancy (43), C Ryan for Honan (65), A Cunningham for Lynch (66).
Subs for Dublin: D O’Callaghan for O’Dwyer (44), S Durkin for McCaffrey (49), N McMorrow for Ryan (49), S Lambert for O’Brien 52), R O’Carroll for Treacy (56).
Referee: D Kirwan (Cork).