Banner falter at final hurdle

December 19, 2002
Clare surpassed all expectations by reaching the All-Ireland hurling final this year but their failure to do themselves justice against Kilkenny made it a disappointing end to the year for manager Cyril Lyons. Just when it seemed that Clare's best days were behind them, the county made a sensational return to the big stage this year. Backboned by the stars of the successful 1995 and '97 campaigns and bolstered by the emergence of several exciting new talents, the Bannermen surpassed all expectations by qualifying for the All-Ireland final. But, much to the disappointment of their fans, they never going motoring against a dominant Kilkenny side and finished on the wrong end of a 2-20 to 0-19 defeat. While Clare had gone into the final as underdogs, few had expected Kilkenny's victory to be so comprehensive. For Banner County manager Cyril Lyons, the manner of the defeat hurt him deeply. "We always knew that Kilkenny would be difficult to beat but, in saying that, we never expected to play so poorly," he says. "While not trying to take anything away from Kilkenny who were excellent all year, we failed to do ourselves justice and that's what disappointed me more than anything. To have put in so much preparation and get a performance like that in return was hard to take. It's not every year that Clare reaches an All-Ireland final and when you do get to that stage, you at least expect to play to your potential." En route to the Liam McCarthy Cup decider, Clare had displayed the same never-say-die attitude that had made them such a force in the mid-to-late 1990s. For the third year in succession, they suffered a narrow defeat to Tipperary in the opening round of the Munster championship but the new All-Ireland qualifying system provided them with the opportunity to resurrect their season. They easily accounted for Dublin at Parnell Park before overwhelming what was a tired and disjointed Wexford in Portlaoise. It wasn't until they beat last year's All-Ireland runners-up Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, however, that people began to sit up and take notice. Niall Gilligan's cheekily-taken goal kept Clare in contention at half-time. Clare began to exert dominance in a number of key positions on the restart and their tremendous battling qualities had Galway on the backfoot. With the game in the melting point, midfield general Colin Lynch fired over the winning point in injury-time to give the Bannermen a dramatic victory. "Without doubt, that victory was the highlight of the year for us," Lyons recalls. "With no disrespect to Dublin and Wexford, it was the first serious game we won this year. We hadn't played well in the first half but our heart, courage and determination came to the fore after half-time. I think it was the nature of our victory that convinced a lot of people that we were back." The win over Galway meant that, for the first time in his three-year reign, Cyril Lyons had finally stepped out of the shadow of his illustrious predecessor Ger Loughnane. It also resulted in Clare being installed as favourites to see off newly-crowned Munster champions Waterford in the semi-final. Despite making a poor start, Clare were ahead at the interval thanks to an Alan Markham goal. The Decies threw everything at Clare in the second half but the Banner defence, in which full back Brian Lohan was magnificent, frustrated them time and again. In the end, Clare were full value for their 1-16 to 1-13 victory but the performance was somewhat overshadowed by a serious hand injury sustained by wing back Gerry Quinn. The Corofin clubman made a miraculous recovery to play in the final but the GAC investigation into the incident failed to identify the culprit. "We had the momentum behind us at that stage and there was a strong belief among the players that they couldn't be beaten. There is no doubt that the All-Ireland qualifiers were a big help to us in that regard. The extra games seemed to bring us on a great deal," Lyons explains. The big positive for Clare going into the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny was the outstanding form of their defence. The likes of Brian Lohan and Seanie McMahon had been playing as well as they had ever done and had been squeezing the life out of opposing attacks all season. Colin Lynch had also been in the form of his life at midfield but the real concern was over the forwards, who many felt weren't good enough to chalk up a match-winning tally in the All-Ireland final. Unfortunately for Clare, those concerns manifested themselves to a certain extent on the big day. While the Kilkenny attack scored almost at will, Clare's was much more laboured, even if they did manage 0-19. The writing was on the wall for the Munster side from as early as the fifth minute when DJ Carey ghosted behind their defence to flick home the opening goal. Clare did reduce the deficit to three points early in the second half but the Cats gradually regained the upperhand and a late goal from Henry Shefflin effectively ended the final as a contest. "We knew going into the final that we couldn't afford to be chasing the game, just as we had done against Galway and Waterford. We had managed to make up the deficits in those games but it was never going to happen against a team of Kilkenny's calibre. "We needed the early goal but it was Kilkenny who got it instead. That left us under pressure for every ball and we just weren't able to settle into a rhythm. I don't know what happened to us on the day - maybe we paid Kilkenny too much respect. They beat us in the National League earlier in the year and even then, you could see how good they were. They maintained that very high standard right through the entire year." Lyons dismisses the suggestion that this year was a last hurrah for Clare. He also expects that there will be no retirements between now and the start of the new season. "Nobody can say for sure whether this was the last hurrah for Clare but I'd like to think it wasn't. Clare love to be able to prove people wrong and if these lads want it badly enough, which I expect they will, I'm sure they will be back next year. "If some of the older lads decide to bow out, I would accept their decisions because the service and commitment they have given to Clare hurling over the past 10 years has been unbelievable. The effort they put in this year was incredible to say the least." He continues: "The expectation is that we will have everyone back for the start of the National League and we'll be giving the older lads until then to make their decisions. We are fortunate in that we have some very talented young players coming through and it would be a big boost to those lads to have the more experienced players alongside them."

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