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Thursday 19 October 2017

Third time's a Clare charm

U21 hat-trick won after 'incredibly tough week'

FOR a couple of reasons, this wasn't an ordinary All-Ireland Under-21 win.

Even on a surface, purely hurling level, Clare's accession to greatness was finalised with victory on the night.

But beneath all the pyrotechnics - an annual guarantee for this competition - lay a far more harrowing tale.

Ten days before the 2-20 to 3-11 win over Wexford, their third title in the grade in successive years, tragedy visited the Clare camp.

Gerry O'Connell, father of the Banner's Gearóid, died in an accident at the family's farm in Ballyea.

"It's been an incredibly tough week," admitted Clare's co-manager, Donal Maloney, afterwards.

"We speak a lot about resilience and courage a lot as a group, but for Gearóid O'Connell to do what he did in the last week and a half with the grief that he went through.

"It's just incredible to be able to go out there and play like that tonight and give so much after such a tragedy."

On the night Clare confirmed the meteoric velocity of their recent rise, O'Connell played well at right half-back, scoring a point from play in a performance that elevated his manager's words beyond mere platitude.

"That just shows the character of the man," agreed team-mate, captain and all-round genius Tony Kelly.

"His father passed away last week. I went up to the field on Thursday morning and he was outside pucking the ball.

Performance

"He was on about going training on Friday night. He trained over the weekend and he came into training with a smile on his face, a hard thing to do. And I suppose it's credit to the man to come out here this evening, tog out and put in big performance as well."

It's true, only the great teams do three-in-a-row.

And this Clare side, most definitely, are now in that esteemed bracket, particularly for the likes of Kelly, the irresistible Colm Galvin, Seadhna Morey, Aaron Cunningham and the rest of the 2012/'13 survivors.

For Maloney and his managerial cohort, Gerry O'Connor, it began roughly five years ago when they took the steering wheel with a group of tyros.

After their first day of Under-16 trials, Maloney arrived home and made something of a grand pronouncement.

"I have seen a new Henry Shefflin," he told his wife, "and he was going to be wearing the Clare colours."

The future king to whom he referred was Kelly.

Last year's Hurler of the Year was in sumptuous form on Saturday night in Thurles, scoring seven points from play, ably assisted and pushed all the way for the Man of the Match award by Galvin.

"They are magical, they stand apart," said Maloney.

"You can talk about coaching and systems or whatever, but they just have everything in terms of athleticism, great leadership qualities, and the right mentality to make the right decisions 99 per cent of the time.

"That's a rare combination, only the really, really great hurlers have that. He's (Kelly) a sensational player and such a team player.

"He worked so hard for the team tonight. He was tackling, tracking, blocking down, and winning ball he shouldn't have won. He's just a super guy."

All of which means that Wexford's contribution to the game - and indeed the year - will be lost in the wash.

Which is unfair.

Because they pushed Clare probably about as close as any team could.

Wexford hit three goals - one from Conor McDonald and two through substitute David Dunne - but each time, Clare's response was stirring.

And nothing - but nothing - could contain Kelly or Galvin.

Comforted

"Listen, that opposition out there tonight would probably beat most senior teams in the country," shrugged Wexford manager JJ Doyle afterwards, disappointed but possibly slightly comforted by the mitigation that they had been beaten by truly special opponents. "What is there, seven or eight All-Ireland senior medallists in it? We don't have that experience but as a guy said one time, experience is what you get when don't get what you want and we certainly got experience there tonight."

For Clare, the night marked the end of Kelly & Co's underage stints, a golden time in which the county won three All-Ireland Under-21 titles, sandwiched around last year's senior success.

For context, they didn't win a match at minor or Under-21 between 2000 and 2007.

"It is probably hard to take it all in right now," Maloney admitted. "In time they will reflect back and think what an era it was for them."

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