By Mark Jones
Kilkenny always knew it wouldn’t be easy, yet they might have expected a more powerful challenge from Clare in last Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park. In the end, the winners had four points to spare as they now contemplate next month’s final against Cork, while Clare were left to ponder too many missed chances.
Ger Loughnane’s players didn’t throw it away; however, they were never sharp enough in front of goal as Jamesie O’Connor, Niall Gilligan and Alan Markham were all slightly below par.
Not surprisingly, the Kilkenny attack was mostly shackled by Clare’s vastly experienced defense, but when the chances came, they were taken. None more so than DJ Carey’s goal 14 minutes from full-time which emphatically turned the contest in Kilkenny’s favor.
Denis Byrne’s sideline cut spun away from Brian Lohan and Henry Shefflin and Carey was on to the ball in a flash before striking a brilliant shot into the roof of the net. A matter of minutes after the goal, Clare had Stephen McNamara sent off for a second bookable offense and, try as they might, they couldn’t open up the Kilkenny rearguard.
Asked if it was a game too far for Clare, manager Loughnane simply believed his team never found top gear. "We were never rolling like you need to be at this level, we weren’t playing with that sharpness you need. Their half-back line totally dominated us in the second-half."
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Kilkenny might have had some worries about that half-back line when Pat O’Neill came in as an eleventh hour substitute for the injured Eamonn Kennedy, but flanked by Michael Kavanagh and the excellent Peter Barry, O’Neill responded with a display reminiscent of his glory days.
If Charlie Carter and to a lesser extent Shefflin failed to live up to
advance billing, Brian McEvoy, John Power and of course Carey, took up the slack. McEvoy had a storming match as he gave Clare captain, Anthony Daly, a difficult time and Power proved himself with some inspirational hurling in the second-half.
Although there was never the panache of the first semi-final between Cork and Offaly, this proved to be a gripping contest as Kilkenny got off to the proverbial flier with a Ken O’Shea goal after only 40 seconds.
Clare appeared to be struggling, but they soon settled with Brian Lohan a dominant presence at full-back and by the 23rd minute, they led by 0-7 to 1-2. Goal chances for Colin Lynch and Markham had come and gone and Kilkenny were able to level matters, 1-5 to 0-8, at the interval.
"We knew then we had to open it up if possible," manager Brian Cody said. "DJ’s goal was probably vital. It was one of those out-of-this-world goals that only certain players can score when their backs are to the wall."
Soon, Kilkenny were in front by four, but McNamara had come off the bench to reduce the margin with a well-taken goal. Enter DJ and his superb goal and from then, the winners never looked back.
"We knew we wouldn’t match Clare in the physical department," suggested Carey afterwards, "so we wanted to keep moving and pick up the breaks and it worked out for us."
And what about the final? "Jesus lads, Cork don’t come into this yet," says Cody," we honestly haven’t thought about them."
By now, the serious thinking will have started.