By Malachy Clerkin
DUBLIN — If ever there was a case to be made for there being beauty in destruction, Clare made it in Croke Park on Sunday. Forceful and willful to the last, they took a Waterford side that had blazed their way through the game’s opening and they strangled them to death in their All-Ireland hurling semifinal. And they did it legally and sportingly and with none of the simmering spite that had held people’s attention in the week before the game. They may have ended the afternoon with their boot on Waterford’s throat, but they were quick to throw their arms around them when it was all over.
Their performance was astonishing but not by any stretch of the imagination surprising. Once again, it was the clutch of legends scattered across the teamsheet who pulled them through, with Seanie McMahon, Jamesie O’Connor, Colin Lynch and the impact substitute Ollie Baker all heroic. But even in that company, one man stood alone, his intensity and determination as phenomenal now as it was when Clare broke through in 1995. There may be more stylish hurlers than Brian Lohan, but there are few better defenders.
On Sunday, the full back of his generation was a behemoth. As Clare came out for the second half with nothing on their minds but squeezing the life out of Waterford, it was he who led the charge. He hooked, he blocked, he swept up and he broke down. But most of all he marshaled his troops into conceding a mere four points in that second half. And with that, the game was won.
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Waterford will be more inclined to the view that it was a game lost, however. They played by far the better hurling in the first half, sprinting from the blocks like men possessed. For much of the opening half, they played the best hurling of the summer. Their touch was majestic, their shooting perfect. Before the pubs around Drumcondra had emptied, Eoin Kelly already had three points on the board. By the 13th minute, Waterford led by 0-7 to 0-2.
But Clare know better than to be rattled by a 5-point margin. On the morning of the game, an interview with Jamesie O’Connor appeared in the Sunday Tribune where he talked about being around the block enough times at this stage not to panic when things go against you. On the evidence of their last two games, it’s a mindset stitched into the fabric of Clare hurling now. Let the other crowd lash away for a while, then choke them to death when to mood takes you.
Which is what they did here. McMahon lofted over a couple of 65s, Colin Lynch took a point and there was only a couple in it midway through the first half. Even when Paul Flynn then made his only worthwhile contribution by scoring a goal from a free to leave Waterford five points ahead, you got the feeling they deserved the margin to be bigger. You knew for certain they would need it to be.
Because on the stroke of halftime, Clare came back and did what Clare do. Alan Markham flitted across the radar for the only meaningful time all day, rifling in 1-1 in the space of 30 seconds. All of a sudden, the two teams were heading for the dressing room with Clare a point up. How it had happened was anybody’s guess.
What was certain now was that whatever free-wheeling ideas Waterford had for the second half could be forgotten about straight away. There wasn’t a soul in the ground who didn’t know how Clare would take the second half and kill it dead. By the same token, however, there wasn’t a soul in the ground who could stop it.
Justin McCarthy, the Waterford manager, pointed afterward to the shocking number of wides his team hit, and although he had a point, that Clare could reduce his team to four points in the whole of the second half was frightening. Lohan was majestic, especially in that period, when for a while it seemed as if there was nobody on the pitch but him and his red helmet. Everything seemed destined for his hands and his hurl and nothing, it seemed, could pass him.
And in the end, that’s what won it for Clare. They themselves only troubled the scoreboard operators six times in the second half, with Niall Gilligan especially culpable on the wides front. How he could have faced Lohan in the dressing room if Clare had been pipped is anyone’s guess.
But they weren’t and now they face either Tipperary or Kilkenny in the final on Sept. 8. They’re not a team that wins friends easily; indeed, they’re not a team that courts them. But they’ll be underdogs going into the final and many will hope they prosper.
Because it doesn’t matter a jot that they’re not pretty. What matters is that they’re pretty special.
Clare: A. Markham 1-1, J. O’Connor 0-3 (1 free), S. McMahon 0-3 (all 65s), D. Forde 0-2, T. Carmody 0-2, N. Gilligan 0-2 (both frees), C. Lynch 0-1, O. Baker 0-1, T. Griffin 0-1.
Waterford: P. Flynn 1-4 (1-3 from frees), E. Kelly 0-4, T. Browne 0-1 (sideline cut), E. McGrath 0-1, A. Maloney 0-1, K. McGrath 0-1, J. Mullane 0-1.