By Mark JonesTipperary 2-19, Clare 1-14
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Tipperary had suffered at the hands and hurls of Clare, but this Munster hurling semifinal retribution was sweet. Last Sunday at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Clare’s endurance and passion were put to the test and the result was overwhelming failure. Wasteful in attack and surprisingly vulnerable at times in defense, it was the bleakest moment since the county’s rebirth in 1995.
True, Tipp got the breaks, but you need more than luck to win big games. Nicky English’s players were sharp, decisive and well-prepared, and their gamble of taking the National League seriously paid off. Despite all the talk of Clare’s gut wrenching physical sessions in advance of the championship, they clearly lacked match practice. As manager Ger Loughnane put it, "We needed to be taking every chance which came our way, but we didn’t do that."
There were valuable contributions from Anthony Daly, Brian Quinn and Richard Woods. However, it was scarcely credible that this Clare combination, once lauded for being the most difficult to break down, could allow their opponents a total of 2-19.
Liam Doyle struggled badly, before being replaced by Woods. Ollie Baker was off the pace and neither Seanie McMahon nor Brian Lohan performed with anything like their usual gusto.
Level 0-11 to 1-8 at the interval, Clare were under constant pressure during the second half and a good quarter of an hour before the end, there was little doubt that a first Cork-Tipperary Munster final since 1991 was in the offing.
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While several of the losers’ big names failed to deliver, Tipp oozed confidence and skill in all corners of the pitch. Yet again, John Leahy was defiant and workmanlike as he patrolled the area behind the half-backs, Tommy Dunne was magnificent at centerfield, and Philip Maher, Paul Ormonde and John Carroll repeatedly got the better of a disappointing Clare attack.
Loughnane’s men were struggling by the time Doyle and Eamonn Taaffe were replaced, but they managed to fight back before the break with the impetus of a neatly taken David Forde goal. Yet Clare were never once in front and it was Tipp — now with the advantage of the breeze who started the second half with serious intent.
Declan Ryan drove home a penalty after Brian Lohan had fouled Paul Shelley and then in the 52nd minute, Shelley worked the ball past Davy Fitzgerald for his team’s second goal. Clare’s Brian Quinn got back to make a clearance, but the umpire signaled immediately that the ball had crossed the line and suddenly the gap was seven points.
Typically, Clare refuse to lie down, but when Alan Markham looked to be through on goal, Maher was on hand to deprive him with a sublime hook.
"We had a big defeat last year," said English, "so you’re always dangerous with a chip on your shoulder. I don’t think it’s the end of Clare, but a rest won’t do them any harm. They have a lot of miles on the clock and it might have told."
For Tipp now there’s an intriguing Munster decider against All-Ireland champions Cork to prepare and also at least a back door into the championship quarterfinals — so hurling is guaranteed until August.
And Clare? "We’ll take a break and see what happens," said goalkeeper Fitzgerald. "We’re far from dead, that’s the only thing I’ll tell you. We’ll be back."
Last weekend’s two other hurling games were placed firmly in the shade by the Tipp-Clare clash. However, Derry and Antrim each booked a place in the Ulster decider. Goals by Michael Collins and dual star Kieran McKeever put Derry on track for a 2-15 to 0-8 victory over Down in the first of the semifinals at Casement Park, while Antrim dismissed a feeble London challenge by 2-23 to 0-12.
Sligo 1-13, Mayo 1-10
It eventually comes to those who wait. Just ask Sligo, who had being playing second fiddle to Mayo since 1975. This Connacht football championship first-round game at Markievicz Park had all the makings of another gallant, but ultimately futile, effort by the underdogs. Still, Sligo’s brisk, confident start had the pundits of tradition on the edge of their seats.
Moving with precision and pace, and boosted by a lucky Ken Killeen goal which came courtesy of a mis-hit shot, Sligo were in control for the opening 20 minutes. Eamonn O’Hara lorded it at midfield and Paul Taylor’s ingenuity in attack laid the foundations for a famous win.
By that stage, Mayo were a fumbling mess, 1-4 to 0-2 in arrears and shooting so poorly that the Sligo rearguard didn’t even have to be on top of its game. But the pre-match favorites suddenly found their feet with a superb goal by Kieran McDonald and two quick points from Colm McManamon. That burst of scoring appeared ominous for the winners, but they responded swiftly with a couple of Taylor points and one from John McPartland to lead by three at the changeover.
"I thought that period was crucial," manager Mickey Moran said. "Scoring three points just after Mayo had scored 1-2 to level the game. We showed real character then."
That character was tested during the second half, but Sligo coped well as the tension mounted. Mayo didn’t deserve anything from a game that has already blackened the start of Pat Holmes’s stewardship, yet they could have stolen a draw as the margin closed to a couple of points.
"No ifs, buts or maybes about it, the better team won," Holmes said. "You could analyze this or that, but there can be no complaints. It’s a big blow personally, but I’m long enough in sport to know that you have good days and bad days."
His counterpart, Moran, wasn’t getting carried away either. "It’s just one championship match," he said. "We’ve won nothing, but it’s a good start."
Fermanagh 1-12, Donegal 0-13
The season of football upsets continues. Meath gone, Mayo gone, Down gone and now goodbye Donegal. You had to go as far back as 1936 to find the last time that Fermanagh saw off Donegal in a championship game, but tradition meant little or nothing at Ballybofey last Sunday.
Not even the loss of center-back, Tony Collins, who was sent off, and the departure through injury of their star forward, Rory Gallagher, could prevent Fermanagh from reaching a first Ulster football semifinal since 1992. Later there was the marked contrast of the winners’ celebrations with the resignation of Donegal manager, Declan Bonner.
In a match that was ruined as a spectacle by no fewer than 17 yellow cards from Galway referee Des Joyce, Fermanagh had the guts to fight back from what looked like a hopeless situation. Donegal were 0-13 to 1-8 in front with 12 minutes remaining, but Fermanagh seemed to take heart from a Tony Boyle penalty miss and suddenly the revival was on in earnest.
Boyle drove his shot to the left of the post after Adrian Sweeney had been fouled — "You just cannot miss opportunities like that," said Bonner — and Fermanagh were quickly back on level terms thanks to points by Raymond Gallagher and substitute Shane McDermott.
Rory Gallagher had earlier scored a superb first-half goal when he baffled Donegal goalkeeper with the most subtle of chip shots, but by now he was out of the action with a knee injury. Still, Fermanagh were undeterred as first Shane King and then McDermott again opened the gap to two points.
Kildare 1-12, Louth 0-12
Kildare were up to their old tricks again in the first round of the Leinster football championship. A host of wides for starters and then a highly controversial penalty at the death which had every Louth supporter at Croke Park up in arms.
On the back of their National League Division 2 title, Louth looked to be on their way to a historic victory when Kildare’s John Finn burst through the first line of defense and headed towards goal. Finn was fouled all right and tumbled into the square, but it seemed as if the offense had taken place outside the square. Referee Brian Crowe thought otherwise and Padraig Graven stroked home the penalty to book his side a place in the next round against Offaly.
There weren’t too many complaints, however, from the Louth players and management. "You can’t buy experience like that," mused manager Paddy Clarke. "You must go through the mill and while the result didn’t go our way, I know they’ll learn from it."
Graven’s freetaking — he finished with 1-4 — had kept Kildare in the contest as they totaled an abysmal 18 wides. "Ah, sure well, that’s no harm, we won by three points so we’re quite happy," grinned manager Mick O’Dwyer, who one suspects, won’t be so charitable at training this week.
Dublin 2-20, Wexford 1-8
It took Dublin some time to impose themselves in the second of the Leinster first round ties at Croke Park, but once Tom Carr’s men got rolling, Wexford were only able to offer token opposition. The round-robin qualifiers were competitive during the first half, but a Paul Curran goal and some intelligent attacking play by Jason Sherlock meant that Dublin were still able to build up 1-10 to 0-4 interval lead.
The second half was all too predictable except for the contribution of veteran Vinny Murphy who had come in for the injured Ian Robertson. Playing his first championship game for five seasons, Murphy came to life and scored an impressive 1-3. Dublin meet Westmeath in the next round.