Clare jumped for joy, just as Louth players slumped to the sod — this stark contrast provided a visible context to remarkable injury-time action when a mediocre game was turned into something special for the victors and a nightmare for the vanquished.
This game looked done when Louth led by 1-9 to 0-9 after 70 minutes, two points all but assured thanks to a 61st-minute breakaway goal by Ciaran Downey and a fifth point from top-scorer Sam Mulroy. Cue the nightmare, as never-say-die Clare hit 0-4 between the 72nd and 76th minutes to seal a remarkable triumph.
“It’s not their first rodeo,” gushed manager Colm Collins. “They did it against Roscommon last year. It didn’t look good, but there's a tremendous spirit in these players; they never give up. It was there for us as they proved at the end.”
They proved it after points by Emmet McMahon and Gavin Cooney first gave them hope that all was not lost; then some heroic defending kept Louth at bay before another attack yielded the equaliser when Daniel Walsh fly-hacked over from close range.
Most would have settled for a draw at that stage, but after winning the resulting kick-out Clare poured forward once more before Jamie Malone kicked the winner, just as he did against Roscommon in last year’s All-Ireland qualifier in Croke Park.
It was breathless stuff from a Clare side that up to this point seemed intent on kicking their chance away as ten second-half wides kept Louth in the game.
Still, when Malone raided in the 60th minute to put Clare ahead for the first time at 0-9 to 0-8, it looked as if they would kick on to victory.
They’d trailed by 0-6 to 0-3 at half-time after Louth dominated when playing with the breeze. Pointed frees by captain Sam Mulroy either side of a couple of booming efforts from Conor Early in the 14th and 20th minutes helped Louth into a 0-4 to no-score lead.
Clare finally got off the mark thanks to a close-range free from captain Eoin Cleary in the 25th minute, a point that sparked a revival as Keelan Sexton quickly added two more from play to bring it back to a 0-4 to 0-3 game by the 32nd minute.
However, the six minutes injury-time allowed after Louth's midfielder Ciaran Byrne was helped from the field gave the visitors time to reassert their superiority as two more points from Mulroy gave them a deserved double-scored interval lead.
It may have evaporated in the second half, but it didn’t look like mattering when Downey rifled past David Sexton for the only goal of the game.
“The effort the boys put in, they deserved more than they got,” lamented manager Mickey Harte. “It is devastating on players who put such effort into that game to get nothing out of it. I didn’t think we’d have anything like six minutes injury-time in the second half,” he added.
E McMahon (0-3, 2f), G Cooney (0-2, 1m), J Malone (0-2), K Sexton (0-2), E Cleary (0-2f), M McInerney (0-1, 45), D Walsh (0-1).
S Mulroy (0-5, 3f), C Downey (1-0), C Early (0-2), D McConnan (0-1f), D Campbell (0-1).
D Sexton; M Doherty, C Brennan, R Lanigan; J Malone, C O’Dea, A Sweeney; C O’Connor, D O’Neill; P Lillis, E Cleary, D Coughlan; P Collins, E McMahon, K Sexton.
M McInerney for Sexton (33), C Downes for Coughlan (46), D Bohannon for O’Connor (50), D Walsh for Sweeney (54), G Cooney for Collins (61).
D Byrne; D Corcoran, P Lynch, D McKenny; L Grey, C Murphy, C McKeever; C Early, C Byrne; L Jackson, S Mulroy, D Campbell; D McConnan, C Grimes, C Downey.
T Durnin for Byrne (10), N Sharkey for Lynch (38), A Connor for McKinney (45), T Jackson for McKeever (46), C Lennon for L Jackson (47), R Burns for Durnin (68).
S Lonergan (Tipperary)