Last Sunday, expectations weren’t helped by a weather system that gripped Ireland in a whirl of hurricane-force winds and torrential rain. The conditions were so bad that simply playing a bog-standard pass became a supreme test of technique. It had all the makings of a grim contest, full of perspiration and precious little inspiration, and yet, Derry and St Pat’s produced an epic.
Not a word of a lie either. This was an epic. Yes, there were mistakes, and yes, the soccer itself won’t ever be packaged for any coaching DVD, but this was an extraordinarily dramatic game that swayed from one extreme to the other as somehow, Derry ended up lifting the silverware.
It finished 4-3 after extra-time, and after Derry came from behind three times with a display of spirit and self-belief that is so rarely witness when nerves are jangling. For St Pat’s, there was the heartache of having the cup in one hand one minute, and then feeling it wrenched away the next. The last time the Dublin club won this trophy was back in 1961, and as the players sank to their knees at the final whistle, the wait must have felt much longer than 45 years.
Apart from St Pat’s continuing frustration, there were a few other intriguing sub-plots to the occasion. It was the Derry manager Stephen Kenny’s last game in charge as he departs to take up a job with Dunfermline in Scotland’s Premier League, and it was the last ever soccer game to be played at Lansdowne Road before the demolition of the old stadium begins in the new year.
In fact, Kenny had already begun his new life in Scotland, but returned to take charge for the final. It seemed that the journey back to Ireland had been in vain when Derry trailed 2-1 closing in on full time, but Clive Delaney came to the rescue with a late headed goal to send the game into extra time.
A final that had simmered in the atrocious weather, now truly began to bubble. With the wind howling through the old stadium and spectators huddled in knots in sections of the stands, you would never have said there was a shred of glamour about the afternoon, but the best was yet to come.
Suddenly, St Pat’s thought they had it won yet again when substitute Sean O’Connor finished superbly. Maybe now that long wait in the wilderness was finally over. Derry, though, refused to buckle, and appropriately it was the long-serving Peter Hutton, 14 years after he had made his debut for the club, who arrived unmarked at the far post following a corner to tap in the equalizer.
Now it appeared as if this memorable contest would be decided by a penalty shoot-out, however, there was another twist in the tale. Derry’s Killian Brennan swept in a free kick, and his luckless namesake, the St Pat’s defender Stephen Brennan, misjudged the flight of the and headed it into his own net.
That was that. A desperate end for St Pat’s, and joy unconfined for Derry. Lansdowne Road has known its share of drama down the years, but it had rarely hosted a soccer game with such drama in conditions that were almost unplayable.
It was supposed to be intense and probably pretty dull. It turned out to be the game of the year.
Clarke writes about
’06 tragedy, triumph
When you are one of the most recognizable exponents in the world of your sport, and when tragically your wife dies after a brave battle against cancer, you probably won’t have an opportunity to do your grieving in private.
But when Heather Clarke passed away leaving Darren with their two sons, Tyrone, eight, and Conor, six, he could perhaps have curled up into a ball and disappeared from view for six months. But just over a month later, Darren Clarke was back out doing what he does best, playing golf. And not just any old golf either. He was back to compete at the Ryder Cup.
The record already shows that Europe won convincingly at the K Club, taking out America yet again by a record margin. The record also shows that as Phil Mickelson flopped, and as Tiger Woods struggled, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood led the way a Europe team that performed with extraordinary self-belief.
Since he became an established player in the biennial matches, Clarke has usually appeared in all five games, but not this time. Captain Ian Woosnam held him back, shielded him in a sense from the energy sapping schedule, yet even though his role was reduced, Clarke won all three of his games, and emerged as the emotional epicenter of Europe’s triumph.
There were suggestions that he shouldn’t play so soon after Heather’s death. Not in such a cauldron, not when so much was at stake, and not at an event when the wives and partners of the protagonists have such a visible presence. In the end, he agreed to play because Woosnam picked him, but most of all because Heather would have wanted it.
There was added comfort in that his close friends Westwood and Paul McGinley were part of the team, and there were words and deeds of support from the opposition. He and Woods hugged for a long moment on the range, and Amy Mickelson linked arms with him during the open ceremony. In a strange way, after so much heartache in his life, the glare of Ryder Cup publicity brought a little consolation.
A TV interviewer, whom he knew well, found it hard to pose the first question the day before the start as his eyes welled up. And as Clarke reveals in his new book, “Heroes All: My 2006 Ryder Cup Story” he still had to cope with the pressure of hitting his first shot on the Friday morning.
The opening drive at a Ryder Cup is a nerve-wracking moment even at the best of times, but playing from memory, and after receiving a rapturous welcome on the tee from the Irish galleries, Clarke somehow drew back the club and smashed the ball 340 yards down the middle of the fairway to set up a birdie.
Cheered from green to tee, that was the start, and it finished on the Sunday in a welter of emotion as he beat Zach Johnson in the singles. “If I hadn’t played,” he says, “if I hadn’t overcome all those things, I’d still be hiding somewhere.”
It was a shining example of grace under pressure. Clarke had cultivated his reputation as a lover of fast cars, fine threads and more than a few drops of the black stuff. He was one of the boys, a supremely gifted player who could beat Woods with ease one day, and mess up the next. Suddenly, now, there was a different side to him.
Earlier in the year, he returned to the course at the Irish Open following an overnight weather delay to find that his ball, which had been embedded in thick rough, was somehow perched up on the wet grass, and consequently easy to hit. In contention to win the tournament, he could have taken advantage of the situation and gone for the green, but he chopped out sideways, as he would have done if the ball had been buried. He says now it was the right thing to do.
He will play in all the major championships and the WGC events in 2007, but the longest he will be away from his sons is a fortnight at a time. They are now more important than his golf. His life torn apart, Darren Clarke will play on, the game perhaps giving him some strange consolation.
As it did for a few emotional days at the K Club last September.
Cops come to ref’s rescue
No one is saying that referees are the sacred cows of the GAA, and that they somehow have a monopoly on wisdom, but what is happening when yet another of the association’s whistlers can only leave a pitch with the help of a police escort?
Toomevara of Tipperary had just beaten Cork champions Erin’s Own by a point in the Munster club hurling final in Limerick last Sunday, when angry Erin’s Own players surrounded the referee Ger Hoey.
Erin’s Own weren’t incensed by Toomevara’s winning point three minutes into added time, but by Hoey’s decision to deny them a 65 which had been awarded by one of the umpires. “Appalling,” said Erin’s Own manager, Martin Bowen. “Basic standards of fair play were not applied.”
Fine and well to voice disapproval afterwards, but for things to get so hot that gardai have to intervene. Shame on those Erin’s Own players who acted in a threatening manner.