The most relieved man in Croke Park on Sunday had to be Davy Fitzgerald. He had just seen his team dominate Cork for much of the 70 minutes of the All-Ireland hurling final yet they required a late equalising point to save the game.
It would have been extremely tough on the Banner had they lost. They may have had a few arguments during the game with referee Brian Gavin, but the Offaly official was generous with the amount of extra time he played as two minutes had been announced.
The importance of goals was once again emphasised last Sunday because without those major scores Cork would have been well beaten. It was typical Cork. They struggled badly yet kept on the coat-tails of their opponents.
Clare opted for a more orthodox approach clearly believing that man for man they had the players capable of matching and, indeed, bettering anything the Rebels could offer. For long periods that tactic worked well.
Clare’s first half superiority stemmed from the dominance of its half-back line. All three were imperious and continually frustrated Cork.
Many of Cork’s problems stemmed from Anthony Nash’s puck-outs. Landing them down on a clearly dominant Clare half-back line was a flawed tactic. This is an area Cork must address.
For long periods only one team was showing a real appetite for work. The Cork players appeared bewildered by the occasion and they depended to a significant degree on free-taker Patrick Horgan in the opening half.
Davy Fitzgerald would not have been happy at half-time to lead by just two points. It should have been at least six and possibly more. Clare’s impressive momentum continued at the start of the second half.
The break the Rebels required came from Conor Lehane who soloed through the Clare defence to score a brilliant goal in the 40th minute. Cork was now a different side and from there to the finish they hurled with far more conviction. Clare still held the upper hand but Cork was now opting to run at their opponents defence.
Anthony Nash had three efforts on goal from close in frees scoring one in the second half. It was a vital score at a crucial time for the Rebels.
Despite conceding another three-pointer Clare still held the advantage but that was to change when Cork grabbed a third goal from captain Pa Cronin in the 63rd minute. Cork’s tactic of running at the Clare defence was working and Cronin, who otherwise had a very quiet game, scored a great goal from an acute angle. The teams were now level.
Clare was rattled by the Cork goals and uncharacteristically shot a couple of wides that they would have scored in the first half. After Cronin’s goal the momentum was with Cork and when Patrick Horgan edged them ahead an unlikely win for the Rebels was on the cards.
Cork had an opportunity from a lineball to edge another point ahead. Instead the Banner men dug deep to win the puck-out in added time to score a deserved equalising point from corner back Donal O’Donovan.
Despite views to the contrary I do not think the final was a classic, but it was hugely enjoyable with lots of superb hurling. Clare will be disappointed but will also realise that the referee might have blown for full time a little earlier.
Predicting the eventual winner is no easier after Sunday’s game but without doubt a remarkable hurling year continues to enthral.