They’ll party like it’s 1995, but Clare are already looking forward

We should have known it was Clare’s year really. A once-in-a-generation heatwave. Dublin winning the football. All we’re short is a spat about Blur and Oasis and we might as well be in 1995 all over again.

THE CLINCHER: Darach Honan, 14, raises his hand in triumph  after beating Cork keeper Anthony Nash to score Clare's fifth goal.Picture: David Maher
THE CLINCHER: Darach Honan, 14, raises his hand in triumph after beating Cork keeper Anthony Nash to score Clare's fifth goal.Picture: David Maher

Just as that Clare win heralded a new dawn in the game, does Saturday night’s astonishing game usher in a more competitive hurling championship?

We’ve heard it said before that this has been the greatest hurling season: whatever your views on that, the battle we saw in the Dublin evening was certainly one worthy of defining an era even before that era has actually happened. Eight goals. Stunning cameos. A game alive in injury time, like the Thrilla in Manila transported to Jones’s Road.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possible could. It’s like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.” — Hemingway wasn’t talking about Cork and Clare — it was a bullfight he attended — but the description is applicable. Skill and guts and guts again won the day, as they have all year every year.

Generally speaking an All-Ireland final exists on its own. You don’t look to 70 minutes in September to offer a neat embodiment of the season that’s led up to it — who remembers the preliminaries to 2010’s epic finale, for instance — but Saturday was at least true to the preceding championship.

Not that either camp was in a place to accommodate that perspective.

In the cavernous tunnel behind the Croke Park dressing-rooms defeat began to dawn on Cork, and selector Kieran Kingston merely said that being involved in a great season was little comfort.

Davy Fitzgerald has been so focused on Clare these last few weeks (months? years?) that he’s probably not even aware that Breaking Bad is finishing in a couple of days; one of his only nods to the bigger picture was to point to Shane O’Donnell’s national league heroics for Clare when others were out injured.

The Banner’s win copperfastens the view that the game has changed again, though. This Clare team offers you a neat reverse image of Ger Loughnane’s side, in that a fearsome, unyielding last line of defence is not as obvious now as it was then; the warp and dazzle of the forward line is a 2013 innovation, though.

Loughnane’s team had to dig hard for their scores; Davy’s hit 5-16 on Saturday night, including three goals in the opening 20 minutes.

Beyond the headlines, though, the small print of their win shows an emphasis on speed and touch that expresses itself in confidence in short, stroked passes delivered from the hurley, an innovation far more surprising than it might appear. Only a few years ago if hurling fans of any county had seen in a league game some of the passes Clare worked around the field last Saturday they’d have had a fit of the vapours. Doing it in an All-Ireland final . . .

There have been other changes. Anthony Nash beat 12 Clare players to hammer home a free from 20m in Croke Park, a nice companion piece to his goal in the drawn game, but is this indicative of a new development within the game?

Hardly. Few players can manage to bring the ball forward off the lift like Nash, so you shouldn’t expect to see a stream of ’keepers coming up for penalties next season. A pity in one way, as the sense of theatre as the Kanturk man charged upfield — like a man on a Honda 50, as his team-mate Conor O’Sullivan put it — electrified Croke Park in the last two games.

The greatest change of all is one so deep it’s almost geological, though: a realignment of the plates. The primacy of the Clare way means they now offer the template: speed, space and support are now the way forward, and all counties will spend the winter and early spring auditioning for players who can play that game.

It’s not so long ago we were thinking that muscle and heft and breaking the tackle were paramount, but Clare showed on Saturday night the value of players making themselves available for the support pass — and having the guts to commit to and execute that game. Watch and you’ll see this become the accepted style and, as with everything in the past, you won’t be surprised you remember the old way, you’ll just be surprised that that was the way we thought it had to be.

Their predecessors in 1995 only won one more All-Ireland. Can you see this Clare team finishing with two senior titles?

Me neither.

Everything says they’re set to dominate in a way this writer hasn’t seen since leaving Croke Park in 2006, when a Kilkenny side with a perfect age profile, the requisite blend of age and youth, had just beaten Cork.

That Kilkenny side was a good deal older than this Clare team, though. Their 2009 U21s – 2009! — are the players providing the experience, and they have a teenager who has scored three goals in an All-Ireland final. (For some reason related to 1995 and history and example and breeding, it seems entirely appropriate that Shane O’Donnell, the 19-year-old in question, is studying genetics in UCC.)

Yet Tipperary won’t fear them if this week’s draw matches them in the 2014 championship. Limerick will reckon they owe Clare one after this year’s semi-final. Waterford will have a new manager. And Cork will return: they always do. They did so time and again in the two All-Ireland finals, and they went out eventually on their shields.

Back in the stadium on Saturday evening, both Fitzgerald and Jimmy Barry-Murphy were in the business of saluting the calibre of their men.

“It’s not a cliche,” said Barry-Murphy. “But they were fantastic for us both days, showed tremendous spirit, showed fabulous pride in Cork hurling. They’ve been fantastic for us all year and I couldn’t fault them by one iota. We’ll take our defeat like men and we’ll move on.”

His opposite number was equally glowing in his tribute.

“They have exceeded my expectations,” said Davy Fitzgerald. “My job is to take as much pressure off them as I can. In my heart of hearts I know anything is possible and to be honest, I believe in them. My job is that they are a great bunch of young fellas and I have to take as much heat off them as possible.”

Skill and guts. Heart and character. Domhnall O’Donovan deciding to hit his first point for Clare to level the first game as he fell over on the sideline.

Cork staring at an eight-point deficit and roaring back to level in a red and white wave. Clare facing that challenge, rallying again and driving the knife home.

Heart and character. Skill and guts and guts again. Those were essentials in 1995; they were essentials in 1895.

Going on this year they’ll be prerequisites in 2014, certainly.

Forget Blur and Oasis. Hemingway called it right, 80 years ago.


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