Brian Barry previews the All-Ireland Final between Cork and Clare, and feels that it will come down to the tactical duel between the managers.
In 1999, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, in his first term in charge of Cork, led them back to the promised land. Having dwelled in hurling mediocrity during the 90s, the Rebels were mere spectators as the sport’s revolution unfolded. He stepped down as manager a year later, collecting another Munster title on the way. Cork were back at hurling’s top table, in far better stead than JBM had found them in five years earlier. Cork won back to back All-Irelands in 2004/2005 on the foundations which the ‘Barrs’ clubman laid.
JBM returned to the set-up in 2012 with the county not being considered as a main contender for glory in September. A run to the final of the league and a loss to Galway at the penultimate stage of the championship heralded progress. 2013 signaled a new challenge. With much of the old guard feeling they still had something to offer, Barry-Murphy decided it was time for a change. When Cork were relegated from Division 1A of the league, there was much criticism flying about, claiming the young blood was not up to the challenge. And how they have proven their doubters wrong.
While Cork were a dormant force in 1995, Clare were busy creating history. Davy Fitzgerald was vital to the banishing of Biddy Early. The Banner were finally back in the big time. They would go on to lift Liam McCarthy again in 1997. An appearance in the All-Ireland final in 2002 was the last hurrah for some of that great team, but ultimately a DJ Carey inspired Kilkenny proved too strong. A valiant effort in the 2005 semi-final against Cork was as close as they came to return to Croke Park in September in the intervening period. After that, Clare began to regress. A host of retirements rocked the county, and Anthony Daly moved on as manager. 2010 heralded a low-point for the senior team. The county was trashed by Dublin, who would subsequently lose to Antrim, 2-22 to 0-15. Things were looking bleak for Clare.
Cue the underage revolution. They lost narrowly to Kilkenny in the 2010 minor All-Ireland final, but found success at the u21 grade in both 2009 and 2012, and find themselves in the final again this year against Antrim next week. Underage success has not always translated to senior level, just ask Galway and Limerick, but Davy seems to have overseen a smooth transition since taking over in 2011.
Cork and Clare have met three times this year, with the Banner leading 2-1. The two wins in the league were no consolation to Davy Fitzgerald and his troops as they trudged off the pitch after being disposed of in the Munster semi-final. Cork were written off going into that game. But an unfancied Cork team is a dangerous prospect.
Since then, the Banner have faced a kind path to the final, sweeping aside Laois before labouring past a tough challenge in the form of Wexford. Joe Canning and company had one of their all-too-frequent off-days in the quarter-final, and suddenly Clare were right back in the mix for the pursuit of Liam McCarthy. Limerick were clearly affected by the five week lay-off after being crowned champions of Munster, and were slow to get out of the blocks. It was not the most difficult path to an All-Ireland final we have ever witnessed, but you can only beat what is put in front of you, and Davy Fitzgerald has found a formula to get past everything so far.
Since their demolition in the Munster Final, Cork have done it the hard way. They hit Brian Cody’s Kilkenny with a tour de force in the quarter-final in their familiar hunting ground of Thurles, before slipping by Dublin in an epic in Croke Park. The resolution they showed in Croker is something we have not seen from a Cork team in a number of years. Ryan O’Dwyer’s dismissal certainly helped their cause but it was a merited win in a game that will be remembered for years to come.
Davy is going to have to change up his tactics from the semi-final if Clare are going to come out on top on Sunday. They afforded the Limerick too much space and time on the ball, but were fortunate that the Treaty did not take their chances. If they give Cork trio Conor Lehane, Luke O’Farrell and Pat Horgan, they space, they will be punished. JBM and Fitzgerald will look to keep things close, so expect a much tighter game than the semi-finals for the first half. Tony Kelly is the key man for Clare. Christopher Joyce will be the man charged with neutralising his threat.
Both defences will be well prepared for the opposition attack, so the game may well come down to the battle in the middle of the park. Lorcan McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney impressed against Dublin, pulling the strings in the second half, with McLoughlin chipping in with three points from play. Cork have the edge in this area and Clare must address that.
This final may not be the fireworks we all expect to round off the most exciting championships in memory if Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Davy Fitzgerald, two of the wiliest managers in the game, get locked in a tactical war. However, regardless of the type of game, it is going to be tight. Cork have the advantage in the midfield. Take them to win by two.
Sport Is Everything. Brian Barry.