The last Munster semi-final meeting between Clare and Cork in The Gaelic Grounds back was in 1997 and was settled by a last minute Stephen McNamara goal, recalls Joe Ó Muircheartaigh in conversation with the Éire Óg man.
“So complete is the role reversal of recent years in the Guinness hurling championship that yesterday’s effervescent Munster semi-final in Limerick ended in the surely unique category of Moral Championship Victories by Cork over Clare.”
THE above was Sean Moran’s verdict in The Irish Times after Clare edged into the Munster final thanks to a 1-19 to 0-18 victory in The Gaelic Grounds.
Role reversal indeed – it was Clare’s third victory over Cork in Limerick since 1993, but the first time in which they were overwhelming favourites and Cork were the perceived minnows. Whipping boys even.
How different it was in ’93 when Raymond Smith famously declared in The Sunday Independent, “I give Clare absolutely no chance of beating the Cork team I watched so impressively in the defeat of Wexford in the league final second replay in Semple Stadium. I won’t travel to Limerick to witness another massacre of the innocents”.
We know what happened that day in the Limerick rain, but still two years later after Clare’s run to a first National League final in eight years there were those who thought Cork’s tradition would win out when it came to the heat of championship battle.
“If you swapped the teams’ recent record there would probably be little enough conjecture about the result – Cork would be taken to win easily,” said Sean Moran. “It would be stretching things a little bit to claim that the current Clare team have limitless credentials.
“The main question regards Clare’s fragile self-confidence, on the big days before they have cracked. Winning from the front is far more difficult as many well be apparent by tomorrow evening,” he added.
“I think Cork will shade it,” said Jimmy Barry Murphy. “I’d go for Cork because in championship hurling Cork have that edge over Clare,” he added.
Clare proved them wrong, eventually getting over the line to begin their first run to an All-Ireland title in 81 years.
It meant that when 1997 came around they were the new bluebloods on the block. Cork, meanwhile, were bloodied, bandaged and still bowed as they tried to pick up the pieces of a record 3-18 to 1-8 defeat to Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh the previous year.
That they picked up the pieces is articulated in Sean Moran’s words and the final score, while the Rebels’ manager Jimmy Barry Murphy said simply, “they put pride back into Cork hurling”.
And it could have been much more than pride, but for the only goal of the game from Stephen McNamara that finally settled the argument in Clare’s favour and catapulted them towards another year to September.
IT was the 70th minute and the force seemed to be with the young Rebels. Pint-sized corner-forwards Seanie McGrath and Joe Deane had hit seven points between them on their championship debuts, while two frees from the experienced Ger Manley on 66 and 68 minutes had whittled Cork’s deficit back to two points.
All this after Jimmy Barry Murphy’s new team had marched off the field to a standing ovation at half-time, trailing by only 0-9 to 0-8 having played against the breeze blowing towards the city end goal.
“We didn’t know what to expect from Cork,” recalls Stephen McNamara, “just as Sunday’s Clare team won’t know what to expect, because Cork are Cork. The way I’ve always looked at it, anyone who wears the Cork jersey, with the tradition they have, anything can happen.
“I don’t know of any Clare team that has walloped any Cork team. I’ve never seen it, because every year you don’t know what Cork will produce. It’s the biggest county in Ireland – there are always hurlers there,” he adds.
McNamara was a half-time substitute for Niall Gilligan – his second time to be thrown in against the Rebels in The Gaelic Grounds, after his championship debut against them two years previously.
“The game in ’95 was the first ever senior game I played for Clare,” he reveals. “I played junior and under 21 the previous year but played none of the league, because I had an operation on my knee earlier in the year.
“Myself, Frank (Lohan) and Ollie (Baker) came on as subs that day. My first experience of inter-county hurling was coming on and hitting five wides – one after the other and afterwards Loughnane came into me and said ‘fair play, at least you weren’t afraid to keep shooting’. It was a great boost.
“In ’97 all I can remember is being on Diarmuid O’Sullivan on me. I remember he hit me a belt and nearly put me up into the stand. That was the first day he was out and they had a lot of new lads that were coming from the 1995 minor team that they had. It’s when Seanie McGrath, Joe Deane and O’Sullivan came onto the scene – Sean Óg Ó hAilpín was another.
“I remember ‘Sparrow’ taking a bad belt and ‘throwing’ me up the ball. After Sparrow took the wallop he went to the ground, but popped it up to me. Sparrow took all the pain, but still had the awareness to give off the pass – it came up beautifully for me and I just had to put the head down.
“I don’t know if I had to pass anyone – I just had to get the goal, there was no real thinking about who was there or what was there. It was just to hit it as hard as I could into the corner.
“It was neck and neck all the way – we were ahead all the way but there was still the chance that Cork might edge us. But as soon as that went in the game was over – their heads dropped. It was the last goal scored on Ger Cunningham – for me that was a nice thing to do,” adds McNamara.
It was the cue for some memorable words from Ger Loughnane after the game. “You can talk about the golden days as much as you like,” he said, “but this is the greatest era of hurling – the greatest era ever.
“Cork were back to their brilliant best and all the fears we harboured about them were fully realised in the first half when they really put it up to us. Our backs were to the wall and for many of us our hurling lives were on the line. I asked the lads to make a vow and go out and do their level best to turn in their best ever 35 minutes of hurling.”
The same question might well be asked of the current generation on Sunday.