The title may be long gone from their grasp, but Kilkenny’s fighting and unbowed spirit remains.
Given their glittering time under Brian Cody a relegation playoff might be unchartered territory for Kilkenny, but the Cats signed off on their national hurling league campaign with a defiant flourish.
A week after breaking Clare hearts, Kilkenny were at it again. This time Cillian Buckley dealt the KO blow in the 70th minute, driving forward to pick off goalkeeper Patrick Kelly’s hand-passed clearance and fire it back over the O’Loughlin End crossbar, a score which saw Nowlan Park erupt in a cheer filled with joy and relief in equal measures.
“That was a serious game, very tense,” said Kilkenny boss Brian Cody, puffing his cheeks out as a way of explaining the rollercoaster of emotions his side endured in those tension-filled 70 minutes on Sunday.
“There was a lot at stake there. Staying up in the top division was important to both teams - it showed in the game, which was tough going at times.”
The going certainly was tough for long spells in a game where Kilkenny struggled to shake off a Clare side who were in their faces and had their hosts on the rack at times.
“We weren’t firing on all cylinders throughout the game,” Cody admitted. “It took a lot of digging in and fighting - there was some excellent chasing and hooking - and some great scores as well.
“It was bound to be that type of game as the consequences of losing were serious for both counties,” he added. “Neither side wanted to be in that situation, but the players had to stand up and take that responsibility. Cillian showed that right at the very end - he took on the responsibility of going for the point, which was a great score.”
A game that ended in a frenzy started in a similar fashion - but it was Clare who first caused hearts to flutter.
Although Kilkenny were quick off the mark - Richie Hogan needed just 20 seconds to split the City End posts - the Banner, with the breeze at their backs, were faster to step through the gears. Shane O’Donnell proved as much when he latched on to Tony Kelly’s diagonal ball (a untimely slip from Paul Murphy gave him space) before he scooped the sliotar over the out-rushing Eoin Murphy and finished to the net.
That goal, which came between points from Kelly and O’Donnell, saw Clare stride confidently into a three-point lead inside four minutes (1-2 to 0-2). It was as if they made the return trip to Nowlan Park determined to give a better performance, but the hosts weren’t about to bow down.
Upping the pace, Kilkenny set about taking the game to their rivals. They did well to pick out spaces in confined spaces - at times O’Donnell was the only Clare player inside Kilkenny’s 45m line - but points from Colin Fennelly, Hogan (free) and Walter Walsh, the latter after some good Kilkenny pressure, left proceedings finely-balanced after a quarter of an hour (1-3 to 0-5), but Kilkenny were only tuning up for more.
The game had been tortuous for the home support, many of whom were ired by some decisions from referee Cathal McAllister. That frustration vanished when the returning T.J. Reid lifted their spirits, catching Richie Hogan’s 18th minute sideline cut before rifling it to the net.
The goal boosted the vociferous support, as did another battling point from Walter Walsh, but Clare weren’t about to fold. With David Reidy and Shane O’Donnell leading the charge they pulled the deficit back to within a point. They could have gone back in front when Reidy nabbed possession and kicked it goalwards. Eoin Murphy was off his line to make the save but referee McAllister whistled play back and awarded a penalty, to howls of protest from the home crowd.
The call seemed harsh, but Clare couldn’t make it count. Tony Kelly went for goal, aiming for the top left corner, but the sliotar whizzed past the wrong side of the post.
That miss might have dented the hopes of many sides, but Clare’s confidence seemed to be bullet-proof. David Reidy got them up and running again, robbing a Kieran Joyce pass intended for Joe Lyng and turning it into a 30th minute point. Kilkenny did hit back with a similar score - T.J. Reid picked off Domhnall O’Donovan’s attempted hand-pass and swung the sliotar over the bar - but again Clare simply shrugged it off. John Conlon highlighted their resistance when he relieved Eoin Murphy of possession and split the posts, before a Tony Kelly 65 edged the Banner into the slenderest of leads by the break (1-8 to 1-7).
Slender proved to be an apt word for a claustrophobic second half in which the sides were level on eight occasions.
Although now playing with the wind at their backs Kilkenny couldn’t make the elements work in their favour. they pushed ahead through T.J. Reid and Richie Hogan, but Clare were never too far away. Tony Kelly ran the show for the Banner, striking three fine points in a purple patch.
Kilkenny didn’t have the same golden touch, but worked hard for their scores. A sublime score from Reid (he used the wind to take the ball over the bar) plus another Hogan minor (free) kept the Cats in close quarters, but with Kelly on a roll (he helped himself to another when he grabbed Shane O’Donnell’s reverse pass and landed an impressive score from the tightest of angles) Clare remained in front.
The challenge was laid at Kilkenny’s feet, but they refused to buckle. Richie Hogan and Cillian Buckley kept them in the hunt, but with Kelly’s influence remaining a constant - he chipped in with two more points - the Munster side kept daylight between the teams as the final quarter loomed (1-15 to 1-13).
It was at that stage that the game’s intensity picked up - it was almost as if both sides could hear the relegation trapdoor begin to creak open. Kilkenny were first to react, Colin and Michael Fennelly shooting points to level matters, but Seadna Morey pushed Clare’s noses back in front.
The Cats continued to find points from different sources. Kieran Joyce got his name on the scoresheet, firing over a booming point before T.J. Reid blocked Domhnall O’Donovan’s hand-pass and teed up Walter Walsh to edge Kilkenny ahead again (1-17 to 1-16).
Once more Clare fought back, Shane O’Donnell’s mining a fine solo score. The loss of Tony Kelly to injury, just when they needed him to get them over the line, was a crushing blow - but not as bad as Buckley’s last gasp winner, a point which condemned the Banner to life in Division 1B for 2016.