Though this was a facile win, Antrim doing their limited best but never at the races against a Clare side backboned by eight players (four starters, four panellists) from Sunday’s drawn SHC final in Croke Park against Cork.
It took Clare just 12 minutes to unlock the crowded Ulster men’s defence, at which point they led by just two points (0-4 to 0-2). Once they found the key it became a rout and when they led by 18 points at the break (2-16 to 0-4), a record win looked on the cards.
Seven minutes after the resumption, however, having extended their lead by four, the Clare management duo of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor hauled the big guns ashore, David McInerney, Colm Galvin, Tony Kelly and Podge Collins all leaving the field to a massive ovation. In the remaining 23 minutes Antrim managed an honourable draw, seven more points apiece, free-taker Ciaran Clarke doing most of their scoring, corner-forwards Cathal O’Connell (11 points) and Davy O’Halloran (1-4) doing the damage for Clare.
Overall though it was a total mismatch, Clare’s title before a ball was pucked.
“The final was probably in Walsh Park, against Waterford,” admitted O’Connor. “That was the toughest test we have faced in a long time and we must acknowledge the work going on down there. They pushed us to the very limit and the resolve we gained from that, the test we got, really stood to us in the second half against Tipperary when they came back at us (Munster final), and in the first half against Galway (semi-final) here a few weeks ago.”
This has been a team in the making however for a lot longer than that. “I call this the class of 2010 and we lost the All-Ireland minor final in pretty harrowing circumstances against Kilkenny that year. We felt we left it behind us and in the dressing room afterwards — through tears, and we don’t remember a whole pile of the words that we uttered but we remember the hurt and the pain and the anguish — we made a pact as a group that if we ever got the opportunity to win an All-Ireland together, we would. It probably came a year sooner than expected (Clare also won last year) but these guys have been training and preparing for today for the past four years.
“While the result might appear facile, the performance we wanted to give, we gave, in the first half. We wanted to give a top-class professional performance that reflected a team that had been training for four years. People have been surprised how well a young team like Clare performed in Croke Park on Sunday but these guys have a winning mentality, they know nothing else other than winning. That’s a huge advantage to have going into any game — they expect to win, fear nobody but respect everybody.”
The senior guys are an inspiration to the others, reckons O’Connor, not a prima donna among them, just settled straight back into the U21 set-up. “It’s being reported in the media that 14 of these guys are on the (extended) senior panel but the reality is that only four of them are playing day in, day out. The biggest challenge we had was to ensure our training was of a high enough intensity to bring the guys who weren’t playing last Sunday up to speed. It gives you a taste of the mentality of these guys that on Tuesday night Podge Collins had a puss on him because he couldn’t train! That’s the way they are; they love playing hurling, they love the way Paul Kinnerk has them playing, they enjoy it — this was a huge and a wonderful opportunity for them to express themselves.”
It’s going to work in their favour now too going into the senior replay, reckons Donal Moloney. “I think from a Clare perspective there is an unwarranted level of despondency (after the draw) — I think they are really set up to win the replay. This will help them, absolutely. The enthusiasm they will go back in with will be palpable — that will help the rest of the guys to push over the line. We may never see this again in Clare, everything possible has to be done to finish the year on a high.”
Scorers for Clare: C O’Connell (0-11, nine frees); D O’Halloran (1-4); S O’Donnell (1-0); C Galvin (0-3); T Kelly (0-3); S Morey (0-2); C Malone (0-2); A O’Neill (free), J Colleran, E Boyce (0-1 each).
Scorers for Antrim: C Clarke (0-7, five frees, one s/l); C McCann, S McAfee, J McGreevy, C McGuinness, M Bradley (0-1 each).
Clare: R Taaffe; P Flanagan (c), D McInerney, J Browne; S Morey, A O’Neill, S O’Halloran; C Galvin, T Kelly; P Duggan, P Collins, C Malone; C O’Connell, S O’Donnell, D O’Halloran.
Subs for Clare: J Colleran for Kelly (33); K Lynch for McInerney (33); E Boyce for Galvin (37); N Arthur for Collins (37); A Cunningham for O’Donnell (50).
Antrim: G Dixon; C Morgan, M Donnelly, T Coyle; T Ó Ciaráin, P McNaughton, C McGuinness; J McGreevey (c), E Campbell; S Dooey, S McAfee, N McKenna; D McKernan, C McCann, C Clarke.
Subs for Antrim: D Kearney for Ó Ciaráin (22); M Bradley for Donnelly (30); S Beatty for Dooey (30); M Dudley for McKernan (40); D McGuinness for McCann (54).
Referee: C Lyons (Cork).