Courage is grace under pressure
- Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway's espousal with pressure came through choice. In 1918 he enlisted as a Red Cross mercenary in World War One. Stationed as an ambulance driver on the Italian front, Hemingway's encounters with pressure came as disaster made way for salvaging. This exposure to the ill-effects of ferocious violence enlightened Hemingway to the fragility of the human body, at the hands of the human body. It was an experience that would clarify itself to the world in the very sensation alone of reading a Hemingway book.
Deciphering what grace one can summon to enable Hemingway's perception of courage is a complex task. Yet, look no further than Saturday's All-Ireland Hurling Final replay and consider a match that mirrored Hemingway's exposure to pressure in the field of war. Animosity or foul play did not sustain a role in a good-spirited final that yielded warnings from the referee. Unlike its predecessor, this replayed Final did not succumb to simply becoming a shoot out between two superbly honed free takers. However, more closely linked to the game three weeks ago were Cork and Clare's shared determination to follow Hemingway's model and assure themselves that they would encounter serious pressure. Both sides took turns to display bouts of real courage but always on the back of a self-inflicted wave of pressure. When Clare and Cork met for the third time in this year's enthralling Championship, flickering moments of grace dragged out a result from a game largely choked by this pressure. Clare capitalised on the basis of their courage and now become the All-Ireland Champions.
As a spectacle the game lacked nothing. Somewhat akin to the football semi-final tie of Kerry and Dublin, early goals from a rampant Clare almost sealed the tie before it had begun. Where Kerry's goals seemed to inspire Dublin to rejuvenate the hunger of 2011, Clare's bright start had a similar effect on Cork - although they would not react quite as powerfully as Dublin did. However, while Kerry looked to the Gooch with awning pride and astonishment as his passing decimated a Dublin defence that seemed tight, Cork had appeared to give the Clare forwards a free role. While Shane O'Donnell will cherish being a thirteen-minute hat-trick hero in an All-Ireland final, the first of his three goals stemmed from an inept Cork backline. As Clare's Patrick Donnellan slalomed through the centre of Cork's half-back line flailing red bodies desperately attempted to catch up with him. With an almost unbelievable abundance of time and space, Donnellan calmly passed the ball off to O'Donnell who declared of this and his second goal that the sliotar was quite simply 'put on a plate' for him to do the necessary finishing. Clare's efficiency in ensuring these chances were taken deserves admirable credit and on the back of it they built a winning score. Cork's complete lack of defensive wherewithal for the opening twenty minutes determined that quite like the final of September 8th, they would once again need to chase Clare down. And chase they did.
With three goals and a hatful of points scored after twenty minutes, pressure lifted on Clare and with that Clare lifted their pressure on Cork. Risking the embarrassment of being annihilated in an All-Ireland final, Cork began to play with a sublime grace. Their half-back line began hoovering up any pass that did not go straight into the hand of a Clare opponent. Even in this instance Cork began exerting a level of aggression and determination that had it been evident from the first whistle would never have allowed Shane O'Donnell his moment(s) to shine.
Anthony Nash's goal, despite being followed by the goal that would cap O'Donnell's hat-trick, came at a time that allowed Cork to begin playing the way they did with fifteen minutes of the first half remaining. At the best of times it can be extremely difficult to instantly recognize where a free shot from such proximity has ended up. However, in the instance of a Nash effort on goal, one is best advised to look to the umpire closest to the green flag - you will not keep your eye on the flight of that ball when Nash scoops it 10 feet in the air. With twelve Clare players standing on the goal line daring to face Nash's astoundingly powerful and fast shot, not one person can say courage was lacking in a Clare player. However, this courage carried very little grace or sensibility. In erecting a 'yellow wall' the like of which Dortmund fans would be proud of, Clare found that too many hurlers in an area that Tipperary's John Doyle made Hell's Kitchen is as dangerous as too many chefs working on a soup. As the sliotar came from Nash to the goal, all twelve hurlers moved but many appeared to be covering the same area. Perhaps fewer men would have allowed Clare a better chance of organising who would cover what portion of the goal, instead we were treated to another Nash shot that surely shortened the lifespan of the net in the Davin Stand goal of Croke Park.
As the second half elapsed Cork matched the deficit that they had allowed Clare to erect. With ten minutes left to play nothing seperated the sides and this surely puzzled Clare no end. Of the hundred and thirty or so minutes played over the two games at that stage, Cork had only ever led for a matter of seconds. Yet, as the two sides reached parity once more it must have been the opinion of many neutrals that the power of a winning tradition may yet see Cork over the line as Champions. No sooner were such thoughts rooted Cork again tore them asunder. As Clare's Conor McGrath broke toward the Cork goal in the 62nd minute Cork's defensive resilience so recently installed appeared wanting again. It would be wrong to suggest that McGrath's finish - right into the top corner of Nash's goal - was anything but worthy of winning an All-Ireland Final. However, one must question was it carelessness or fatigue that allowed McGrath such a wild amount of space and time in which to fashion his game defining moment. The parity of scores had shown Clare to bring on themselves the pressure that determined a moment of graceful courage the like of which was abundant in McGrath's goal. Although two more goals would be scored - one for either side - the game was as good as up when Nash helplessly watched McGrath's shot soar high into the roof of his net.
Yet, after a tie such as this that stretched to around one hundred and forty-five minutes of play I was personally left feeling a little hollow. While the match rested on a frantic knife edge, the quality of play often left much to be desired. One could not justifiably question the effort either side displayed, only perhaps the performance that these efforts yielded. Defensively, Cork conceded five goals and Clare a total of 6 in what had up until this pair of games been a Championship lacking in very little but goals. While the excitement provided by a goal can only really be met by the scoring of a sensational point, the frailties of either side's full back line were glaring. While the finishing was often sublime, the time and awareness granted to Clare's forward's in particular was occasionally scandalous in its profusion. Similarly difficult to watch was the incredible lacking of accurate passing. So often the ball would break and a melee would ensue. Gone it seemed were the astonishing diagonal passes of Cork's half back line that had troubled Limerick in the first half of the Munster Final and beaten Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Breaking ball was the name of these two games and Clare's intensity assured that they profited most when it came to claiming the spoils of these numerous battles. It was with minor annoyance also that the post match discussions pondered the potential for Clare domination that laid ahead. Clare deserved this All-Ireland, but to speak of them in the same vain as Kilkenny - seeing the Kilkenny are the latest side to truly dominate hurling - was a little too naive it seemed. Clare had sprung forth in what was an All-Ireland open to a surprising number of genuine contenders. It is unlikely we will encounter a Championship of the same ilk in 2014 and as such Clare will need to embrace a new level of consistent performance. While a side can only beat the teams that are put in front of them it is worth considering that in their extended run to the final only Tom Kenny of Cork held an All-Ireland winners medal among all the players and teams they faced. Clare were the best of a new bunch, time will tell if they can advance while the bunch stay stunted.
Pressure defined the turning points of this saga. Clare's courage carried a decisiveness that enabled brief moments of devastation. They will be aware that it could have so easily never made it to a replay had Cork's brief flirtation with the lead on September 8th been etched slightly closer to the final whistle. However this will only serve to make their victory sweeter. It would be wrong not to mention the apparent catalyst to this revival but apparently Davy Fitz doesn't crave the limelight and I'm not one to impose it upon him when he garners it so successfully on his own. The draw for the 2014 Championship is but days away, grab rest while you still can.