Micheál Donoghue and the Galway management will be mightily relieved to have survived, but conscious too that there are worrying signs of fatigue evident in their side.
SEMI-FINALS are for winning. It doesn’t matter how, or how pretty or ugly it looks, it’s all about the result. Clare may have had Galway on the ropes in the second half last weekend, but they couldn’t land the decisive blow and paid the price for it. Credit to the defending champions. They hung in there, found a way to get it done and, it’s hard to believe, are now just a week away from squaring off with Limerick in the climax to this year’s hurling championship.
To say I was gutted coming out of Thurles seven days ago would be an understatement, because this was a game that Clare should have won. My disappointment obviously pales into insignificance compared to the pain the Clare players and management will have felt.
I have been there, as a player — the trilogy with Offaly in ’98, Kilkenny in ’99 — and as a supporter, watching many of the lads I soldiered with lose to Cork in 2005. It’s a dark, dark place.
This was Clare’s eighth championship match this summer, and after all the effort and commitment put in since last November, the players will feel they have nothing to show for it. That hurt will be compounded by the fact that they were within touching distance in both the drawn match and the replay. To get so close, shooting 19 wides, hitting the post with two minutes left, and losing by a point, having trailed by nine at one stage in the first half, means this loss will haunt the players for some time to come. I have no words to console them. What I can do, is acknowledge the tremendous summer they gave their supporters, and the pride all Clare people felt in the bravery, resilience and defiance they showed.
The semi-final is the worst place to go out, because you’re on the cusp of everything you dream of and strive for. Lose, especially by the narrowest of margins, and it feels further away than ever. At least if you’re there on All-Ireland final day, you get to experience all that goes with it and be part of one of the great days in the Irish sporting calendar. Now, irrespective of who prevails in the final, the Clare players will be thinking it could have been them.
Worse still, under the new format it feels like a long way back to that same stage next season. Tipperary and Waterford will both be under new management, with the bounce that’s likely to bring. An equally hungry and devastated Cork will recommence their climb for the summit, possibly with the impetus of an All-Ireland under 21 title behind them. Then throw in Limerick, potentially the All-Ireland champions — and it’s going to be some struggle just to get out of the bear-pit that will be Munster in 2019.
Where did it go wrong for Clare? Where do you start? Because the margins are so small, any one of a hundred little things could have swung the result their way. Hindsight is 20/20, but I was disappointed they decided to go with the sweeper from the start. By all means have it in the locker as a fall-back position if things aren’t going to plan. But to me, it handed the initiative to Galway from the off and the first half in particular was played very much on their terms. If Micheál Donoghue and the Galway players hadn’t planned for Colm Galvin in the sweeper role and those tactics last Saturday week, that was never going to be the case in the replay. Instead, Clare were the ones reacting to Galway and the various curveballs the Tribesmen threw at them.
Conor Cleary would have spent the week priming himself for Joe Canning. Jack Browne likewise with Conor Whelan. Instead, Canning started on Jamie Shanahan’s wing, with Conor Whelan at centre forward on Cleary. The Clare players weren’t sure who they should be marking, and damage was done until they got to grips with it. At the opposite end, in Gearóid McInerney’s absence, Joseph Cooney was redeployed to wing back to pick up Peter Duggan, with Pádraic Mannion in the free role, sweeping in front of Daithí Burke.
All of that meant that it felt like Galway were the ones dictating the terms of engagement. If at times they were one-dimensional in the drawn match — going route one, especially to Johnny Glynn — Clare were the ones guilty of such an approach in the replay. Galway were content to let Donal Tuohy go short to his corner backs with the puck out, but there was no way they were going to allow Galvin to be the distributor in chief as he had been eight days earlier.
As a result we saw Clare working the ball to midfield, but then hitting high ball after high ball to John Conlon and Shane O’Donnell in a seriously outnumbered twoman full-forward line. Not only was Mannion parked in front of them, but with the Clare half forwards playing so far out the field, Adrian Tuohy was content at times to join him. It made Daithí Burke’s job, in particular, so much easier, and Clare’s tactics in many respects, served to blunt two of their most dangerous weapons
Credit the management for the adjustments they made, and to O’Donnell in particular, whose second half exploits dragged Clare back into the match. The chances to win it were there, especially late on. The harsh reality is that Clare’s shooting and decision-making let them down at that most critical point, and they simply didn’t take them. Micheál Donoghue and the Galway management will be mightily relieved to have survived, but conscious too that there are worrying signs of fatigue evident in their side. For the second consecutive game they allowed Clare to remain in a match when they should have been out of sight.
They have players out of form, Conor Cooney is a prime example, others who look tired and their energy levels definitely dipped late in that second half, as they had eight days earlier. Credit where credit is due though. Daithí Burke, Joseph Cooney, and Aiden Harte were all better than they had been in Croke Park. Johnny Coen and David Burke edged the midfield battle, and Johnny Glynn remained a threat up front all day.
Crucially though, when real urgency was required in the second half, Joe Canning stood up big time. If he hit the wrong notes in his post-match interview — I couldn’t understand where he was coming from when he referenced the lack of respect Galway had been shown and how their character had been called into question after the drawn match — he hit all the right notes on the field.
If anything, the opposite had been the case as both sides were rightly lauded after what they served up. Nonetheless, I think he sensed the danger Galway were in, raised his game accordingly, and if he hadn’t there’s no doubt in my mind that Clare would have won.
There was much to ponder for John Kiely and the Limerick management. Much to ponder too for Donoghue and Co. Roll on next Sunday.
Clare’s shooting and decision making let them down
‘I have no words to console Clare. What I can do, is acknowledge the tremendous summer they gave their supporters, and the pride all Clare people felt in the bravery, resilience and defiance they showed’