Clare 0-10 Antrim 0-6
at Creggan, County Antrim
IT wasn’t pretty, indeed it was downright ugly at times but then again it was never about weaving pretty patterns, champagne football and showboating their way towards the promised land of promotion.
It was about finding away – winning, not the manner of it. Just to get over the line and finally get Clare football moving in the right direction.
And so it finally happened for Clare as the anguish of past failures at the final hurdle over the past five years were finally swept away on the gale force wind that blew in from Lough Neagh.
Clare finally sealed the deal, taking a small step, but a giant step at the same time as they banked a first league promotion in 19 long years.
That they found that way was down to a storming second half performance into the wind, when the profligacy of a dreadful first half display when they racked up 13 wides was forgotten about in this final and decisive push for promotion.
Substitute Padraic Collins stepped up with crucial points, as did the indefatigable Shane McGrath; defenders like Dean Ryan, Ciaran Russell and Gordon Kelly thundered into the contest, while Gary Brennan showed the leadership.
All of that and more conspired to drive Clare to this decisive victory over the saffrons after they had threatened to throw in it all away in the first half when failing to take advantage of the breeze.
It was awful to watch when Clare did their best to kick away their promotion hopes – hitting ten wides in the first 18 minutes – with many of the balls drifting aimlessly wide when long deliveries into the full-forward line went astray.
Then there was the spurned goal chance – Gary Brennan could have pulled the trigger, but instead teed it up for Shane McGrath, but with the goal at his mercy he crashed the leather off the post from seven yards.
There was more, because to rub salt into Clare’s early wounds a 14-yard free that was given to Clare from the resulting goal mouth scramble was then floated harmlessly wide by Martin O’Leary.
It was going from bad to worse.
It wasn’t until the 19th minute that the game had a score when O’Leary finally broke the deadlock with a pointed free, while the game shuffled on for a further seven minutes before Clare opened their account from play when Shane McGrath found the range.
At last the scoreboard was moving, with another good move on 27 minutes yielded a Sean Collins point before David Tubridy got in on the act with a point on 32 minutes as Clare were finally translating a near-monopoly of possession into scores.
But at the same time the wides continued to mount, while Antrim finally mustered a few meaningful attacks in injury time and landed points from James Laverty and Thomas McCann to leave Clare with a perilous looking 0-4 to 0-2 interval lead.
But cometh the second half and finally cometh a Clare football team that refused toe yield, with the introduction of All Star hurler and All-Ireland man Padraic Collins being one of many things that turned this tie decisively in Clare’s favour.
Three minutes in Ciarán Russell thundered up the right win and teed up Shane McGrath for the opening point of the half – in the overall scheme of things it was a crucial point, because from there the bit was firmly between Clare’s teeth as they summoned the confidence to kick on to a famous victory.
Brian Neeson did clip a point back for the home side on 41 minutes, but a brace via Padraic Collins (2) and Shane McGrath between the 49th and 51st minutes settled the argument in Clare’s favour as they moved 0-8 to 0-3 clear.
They just weren’t going to be denied, even though frees from Michael Pollock (2) and CJ McGourty reduced the margin to two points entering the last five minutes. All because Clare were still dominating possession, playing brilliantly and patiently into the wind as they played down the clock in those nerve-tingling final minutes.
All that was left was to close it out, something they managed comfortably with David Tubridy having the luxury of being able to tap a penalty over the bar in the 70th minute after Gary Brennan was upended, while an injury time effort from McGrath completed a commanding second half display that saw Clare restrict Antrim to just four points while driving over six of their own.
Next stop Croke Park.
Pierce Deloughrey (Cratloe), Dean Ryan (Éire Óg), Kevin Harnett (Meelick), Martin McMahon (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Shane Hickey (Kilmurry Ibrickane), Gordon Kelly (St Joseph’s Miltown), Ciarán Russell (Éire Óg), Gary Brennan (Clondegad), Cathal O’Connor, Sean Collins (0-1), Jamie Malone (Corofin), Shane McGrath (Thomas Davis) (0-3), Martin O’Leary (Kilmihil) (0-1f), David Tubridy (Doonbeg) (0-3, 1f, one pen), Enda Coughlan (Kilmurry Ibrickane). Subs Padraic Collins (Cratloe) (0-2) for Malone, Shane Brennan (Clondegad) for O’Connor, Paudge McMahon (Clondegad) for O’Leary.
Ronan Hanna (St James’), Kevin O’Boyle (Clann na hÉireann), Richard Johnson (Creggan Kickhams), Oisin Hamill (St Joseph’s), Declan Lynch (Lámh Dearg), Martin Johnson (Creggan Kickhams), James Laverty (Clann na hÉireann) (0-1), Niall McKeever (Casements), Sean McVeigh (Naomh Uile), Ryan Murray (Lámh Dearg), Mark Sweeney (St Jude’s), Tomás McCann (Clann na hÉireann) (0-1), CJ McGourty (St Gall’s) (0-1f), Brian Neeson (St John’s) (0-1), Michael Pollock (St Gall’s) (0-2f). Subs Niall Delargy (Casements) for O’Boyle (B/C), Philip Maguire (St Teresa’s) for McCann, Conor Murray (Lámh Dearg) for Neeson, Tony Scullion (Clann na hÉireann) for Hamill, Michael McCann (Clann na hÉireann) for McGourty, Mark McGarry (Lámh Dearg) for Scullion (B/C).
Referee Cathal O’Hagan (Tyrone)