Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan is tackled by Tony Kelly of Clare. [Inpho/Ryan Byrne]

Clare down Cats after epic fightback, bridge 11-yr gap

Clare 0-24; Kilkenny 2-16

Trailing by five points at the interval and with only a handful of players hurling up to par, Clare boss Brian Lohan gave his side an ultimatum as they headed out for the second half against Kilkenny in Croke Park on Saturday afternoon.

“Man-up or else?” was Hobson's choice offered by the former county great as his team filed-out to face what up to then had been a much sharper and more pumped-up outfit who had beaten them in the last two All-Ireland semi-finals.

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With players of the caliber of Tony Kelly, Peter Duggan and even Shane O’Donnell virtually non-existent in the first half, Lohan’s words had the desired effect as his charges emerged with a totally different mindset and out-hurled the Leinster champions for the rest of the game.

It didn’t help that goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan - who made three miraculous saves before the break - presented the Cats with a present of an early second half goal scored by Billy Ryan to extend their advantage, but the Banner Boys refused to throw in the towel. 

And while it was only two minutes before the end of the game that they actually led their opponents for the first time, once they added another point, they looked comfortable despite Kilkenny's late pursuit of a goal to win the match.

Memories of Eoin Cody’s hurling (and tennis) strike of the year to score a goal in the first half kept the Clare fans on tenterhooks when a late free was floated into the winners square but they emerged with sliotar in hand to clear as the final whistle sounded.

The victory bridges a gap of 11 years to the last time they appeared in a final when Davy Fitzgerald was at the helm to guide them to victory over Cork, albeit after a replay.

Speaking of the downbeat situation at half-time in the dressing room, Lohan explained: “We put it up to them. We could have made six or seven changes with our marquee names but they really toughed it out, showed a great bit of character and we're really delighted for them.

“We spoke about what we wanted to do all week and in the first half it didn’t happen. That was a breakdown on so many levels. At half-time we could have easily taken off six or seven marquee guys. They toughed it out, we changed up one or two things and they showed real character. I’m delighted for our support and the players.

“Kilkenny were very good but we were very ordinary. That was really disappointing, especially considering what happened in the first half last year. We were lucky that we had a second half to come. They really toughed it out, played a much better brand of hurling and were much more committed and assured in our play so we’re delighted with how they adapted,” he stressed.

He went on: “The place to be is an All-Ireland final, that's what we’ve been aiming for. For the last couple of years, the aim was to get back up to Croke Park and maybe it was too easy a goal. When we got to Croke Park, we didn’t perform as well as we would like to. It’s a chance for us to reset now and enjoy the game tomorrow – it’s going to be a great game – so we’re really delighted with our bunch."

Kilkenny manager Derek Lyng was sanguine about the manner of defeat after such a good showing in the first-half. “In fairness to Clare, they won most of the battles and when you do that you deserve to come out winners. No complaints, Clare were the better team. They finished much stronger."

Hurling legend TJ Reid had an opportunity from a far out free to force extra time when Clare were a point up but his shot went left and wide in the 70th minute. Kelly made sure for the Banner boys then by shooting over the final score of the game to widen the winning margin to two points.

Clare: E Quilligan; A Hogan, C Cleary, C Leen; D Ryan, J Conlon, D McInerney; D Fitzgerald (0-2), C Malone; T Kelly (0-3), M Rodgers (0-2), P Duggan (0-1); AMcCarthy (0-11, 0-9f), S O'Donnell (0-1), D Reidy (0-3) Subs: R Taylor for Malone (49), I Galvin for Fitzgerald (56), A Shanagher for Reidy (60), D Lohan for Duggan (73)

Kilkenny: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; D Blanchfield (0-1), R Reid, M Carey (0-1); C Kenny (0-2), P Deegan (0-1); A Mullen, TJ Reid (0-7, 0-4f ,0-1  65, 0-1 s-l), J Donnelly (0-2); M Keoghan, B Ryan (1-2), E Cody (1-0) Subs: W Walsh for Keoghan (57), T Phelan for Mullen (63), C Fogarty for Ryan (67).