Cratloe had waited 122 years for this hour. When it struck 3pm on November 1, 2009, this group knew that their stint wearing the blue of their club would be coloured forever by what they did next.
A moment, 13 minutes into the second half, encapsulates the desire that had oozed every pore of every Cratloe man in Cusack Park.
Clonara’s Darach Honan had tried to outrun a posse of Cratloe defenders but, instead of nearing Seán Hawes’ goal, he was instead driven outfield, where the ball spilled, allowing Michael Hawes to dive on it. The Cratloe centre-back then heard the whistle blow in his favour and, from that moment, you could sense that the new champions’ resolve was unbreakable.
Padraig Chaplin’s goal propelled this Cratloe team to a place that none of their predecessors had ever got to within touching distance of. Yet it was the making of the goal that told us more about Cratloe than did the actual finish.
First off, the Cratloe full-back line was sufficiently disciplined not to allow Donal Madden draw a free from them. A Clonara free at that stage would have sealed a second successive title for the 2008 champions. Then when Madden opted to pick out Tommy Lynch, roughly 40-yards downfield, Seán Collins still had the legs and the anticipation to outpace Lynch, gather possession and look up.
Remember this was a man who dislocated his shoulder on August 30 but was able to line out in the All-Ireland U-21 final two weeks after that.
That’s the quality of resolve and steel which courses through Cratloe and has put them where they are, on both the hurling and football fields.
Collins’ delivery spun off a Clonara hurley and into Padraig Chaplin’s path. If Chaplin had known the score, Cusack Park would be hosting a replay this weekend. Thinking that his side were two points and not merely one adrift, Chaplin went for it. He couldn’t claim to have shaken many of the rain drops off the sodden net behind Ger O’Connell but Chaplin did enough to somehow steer the ball under Ger O’Connell before it trickled over the line.
That trickle led to a dam burst of emotion a minute or so later, when Cratloe’s 122-year long dry spell culminated under a leaden, grey November sky. Not alone had they never won a senior championship, they hadn’t even got as far as a county final since Cratloe men first wielded a hurley in 1887.
While all of the Cratloe men bared their soul for the day, Barry Duggan’s display at full-back neatly encapsulated this team’s insatiable yearning for the Canon Hamilton Cup.
The industry of Liam Markham and Seán Collins, along with the rapier finishing of Conor McGrath, who struck three of their eight scores, edged Cratloe over the line. Remember it was McGrath who set up Cormac O’Donovan for the winning point in the U-21 All-Ireland final on September 13.
Of course they might have eased more comfortably over the same line if their free taking had been more accurate. The one plus from Damien Browne’s errant free taking display however was the fact that he still worked hard and didn’t hide in general play.
Taking frees in a November downpour is markedly more challenging than taking them in, say, mid-September. That’s the county board and their delegates for you. Ironically not too many of them have been seen taking frees at any time of the year. Thence they probably would have a limited understanding of the difficulty of playing county final hurling in November.
As for Cratloe, their luck is up and they’ve cashed in. Late scores took them past Clarecastle and Tubber and saved them when Broadford had almost knocked them out. A last gasp Óige Murphy point beat Corofin in the intermediate football final. This late scoring habit manifested itself again last Sunday on the biggest stage Clare GAA has to offer.
So why were Clonara so flat? Perhaps their excellent start didn’t help in the long run. Four points up after 13 minutes, perhaps Clonara thought that the day would be theirs without the need to dig too deep.
When it became apparent that they would have to do some digging, the necessary resolve just wasn’t there. The bite evident against Newmarket was absent. The GAA might be 125 years old but the need to have a deep-seated motivation to beat your opponent, be it due to a real or imagined slight, remains central to the GAA psyche.
Up until last Sunday, how could Clonara hope to dislike Cratloe, given that they had never won anything of note? There might be more edge if the sides meet next year.
Now though, it’s clear that the balance of Clare hurling power has shifted to places like Cratloe, Clonara, Broadford, Newmarket and Crusheen, leaving Clarecastle, Sixmilebridge and St Joseph’s deep in the static pack.
These are confusing times for GAA traditionalists in this county. A Munster and All-Ireland title has been won without much input from that particular rump, while the Clare senior hurlers, whose management was endorsed thrice over by the county board and their delegates, are not wanted by their players.
As Cratloe have shown ,perhaps it’s time that this county trusted again in youth and dispensed with failed ways. There’s a fearlessness about youth. They are not held back or cowed by the weight of tradition. If Cratloe had been, they would still be the nowhere men.