I was on my way to Thurles on Saturday afternoon when I got a text from Mark Kelly of the Diamond Bar in Ennis. The place was rocking.
Larry Tompkins had run a bus up from Cork for the weekend and 44 of them landed into the Diamond. Mark said the place was like the fleadh all over again.
I’m sure it was. Larry was in tow. So was Cyril ‘The Bird’ Kavanagh and his buddies. I’ve no doubt that the drums and the bodhrans got a good blast. When I was walking into Cusack Park yesterday with my daughter Orlaith, and my old Clare team-mate Stephen McNamara, I was half looking to see if I could pick out the ‘The Bird’ with his unmistakeable Sombrero.
As we ambled across the terrace behind the goal, the Cork team was announced. As soon as I heard Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan weren’t playing, I turned to Orlaith and said: ‘Is this total shadow-boxing or what?’
It looked like it was from Cork in the opening half as Clare tore them to shreds. Clare were superb in that period. Their forwards were on fire. Shane O’Donnell was the only one who didn’t score in that half but he had a bag load of assists. He had set the tone but Clare were clearly out to make a statement.
Galway are the top dogs at the moment but historically, the big three have always been Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary. And Clare have now seen the three of them off in this campaign. For that stat alone, especially when it happens so rarely in Clare, the players and management deserve massive kudos.
There were positives everywhere. Donal Tuohy was excellent in goal. The full-back line was really solid. Mikey O’Malley had a dream debut, taking home the man-of-the-match award. Some of the forward play was Man City-esque.
There was a savvy with everything Clare did. You’d notice that on the long-distance frees, with everyone in around the square, then bursting out, before a set ball was played inside. David Reidy and Peter Duggan were haring to the wings on the Clare puckout. Tony Kelly and Colm Galvin were always working off the breaks.
They destroyed the Cork midfield in the first half.
And yet despite all the good, Clare will still accept that they have much to work on. The freetaking is still an issue. Their shooting needs to be ironed out. Clare are still conceding too many scoreable frees. I met Fergie Tuohy on the way out of the ground and we discussed how, for the second game in succession, Clare nearly blew it after dominating the first half.
Cork have far more pressing concerns after this display. I’m sure they were savaged in the dressingroom at half-time by John Meyler. They did step it up after the break but I still feel we are no wiser as to what awaits us in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the opening championship game in May between these two.
We still don’t know what Cork’s attitude is towards this league. You could also argue that Derek McGrath is playing a risky game. Three successive defeats is bound to heap pressure on. I was listening to the radio on the way home afterwards and you could nearly hear the collective groans from Walsh Park. But this is Derek’s fifth, and more than likely his final year so why not go a different route? He is road-testing new players now so that Waterford can give the championship an unmerciful lash.
I fancied Kilkenny yesterday for a couple of reasons. I felt Walsh Park would suit them more than Waterford. When I got home from Ennis, I flicked on the delayed coverage on TG4. Tadgh de Burca was coming out with a ball and his white jersey was effectively black. Can you imagine a Cody team going in there in those conditions, and desperate for points? It was no wonder Cody was spitting into his hands and rubbing them.
The big concern for Waterford was the paltry score they put up again; 1-12, two weeks after hitting just 1-11 against Tipp. You are not going to win games at any level with those kinds of tallies. Especially when you compare 1-11 with what Clare, Kilkenny, Tipp and Wexford racked up over the weekend.
Being in Thurles on Saturday evening was a pleasure. When you love this game as much as I do, it’s a privilege to be so heavily involved in it, from every angle; managing, coaching, watching, writing, commentating.
For me, the contrasting colours help to paint the big picture; on Saturday evening, I was co-commentating alongside Tommy Walsh and Dave McIntyre for Eir Sport; yesterday, I was amongst the Clare throng in the North Stand taking notes for this column. The craic is always 90 alongside Tommy, but there were a few more Tommy’s dotted all around me too in Ennis.
It’s a privilege to have this opportunity to express my views but it’s even more satisfying to be amongst so many great hurling people. On Saturday evening, I got chatting to Billy Byrne, Tom Dempsey and Ken Hogan, who were also in the cockpit high up in the Old Stand, giving their views for Wexford and Tipperary local radio.
Both lads were impressed with what they saw. So was I. You’d have to be considering the fare served up for the middle of February, embellished by 46 scores. The game produced four goals. It could have had ten.
Tipp’s extra bit of class and ability ( like no others) to open the sweeper system , was decisive but I’m sure Davy Fitz was delighted by what his team served up. Another team trailing by nine points would have lost by 14 but Wexford dug in and if Darragh Mooney hadn’t miraculously saved Conor McDonald’s late rasper, Wexford could have won the game.
Lee Chin was superb but I’d say if you swapped freetakers — Chin and Jason Forde — the result would have been different. Chin ended with six wides, five of which were from placed balls. That will grate a little on Fitzy. So will the concession of three goals, especially the first and third green flags. Yet all those negatives were far outweighed by the positives from this performance.
There are some league games that you can look back on at the end of the season and point to as a landmark moment in that season.
Saturday night could yet be one of those for Fitzy and his squad. John McGrath caused rack but — excuse the pun — Damien Reck still gave him bags of it. It’s still early days but if Reck can limit the rack from a guy like McGrath, he’ll be well able to cut it in championship.
Shaun Murphy didn’t have one of his best night’s as the sweeper but when he was withdrawn, Kevin Foley was redeployed there to huge effect. The four or five balls he did win helped ignite Wexford’s late comeback.
If Murphy is in trouble again now in a big Leinster showdown with a Galway or Kilkenny, Fitzy will know that Foley is a credible option as a Plan B.
That’s why this league is about more than just accumulating points. Because accumulating lessons and experience is often just as important.
And I’m sure Derek McGrath and John Meyler will be telling themselves as much this morning.