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Padraic Collins and Eoin Cleary of Clare celebrate on the final whistle following their All-Ireland SFC Qualifier Round 2 win over Roscommon at Croke Park. Photograph by John Kelly

‘They’re never beaten and at no point do you give up on them, ever’

When Tomás Ó Sé bowed out of inter-county football after 16 seasons in 2013 he wrote a retirement article in the Irish Examiner that finished with the immortal line of, ‘I went as hard as I could for as long as I could’.

You couldn’t want any more from a player. Over. And. Out. Goodbye to the Hill.

It’s a line and attitude to this sporting life that many aspire to, but most mere mortals lack the iron will to carry it through, live by it, do it every time, and eventually die by it, with their boots on in a final valedictory stand.

This Clare football team does it, because of what they have, what they give and then the way they go and give some more. Always.

It’s what has been bred into them by Colm Collins since 2014; it’s their DNA; it’s their default setting and what they’re microchipped for and it’s all they know.

All of the above means that last Saturday afternoon’s heroics in Croke Park represent a short course in history and a microcosm of what this football team is about every day they go out to represent the county.

It’s never saying die; it’s going as hard as they can for as long as they can — then it’s about going again, and again. For as long as it takes. That’s what it took to win this game and secure the county’s first-ever championship win in Croke Park.

By the 66th minute of last Saturday’s roller-coaster, it looked as if they couldn’t go any further, or give anymore — Ciaráin Murtagh hit his fifth point, as Roscommon had outscored Clare by 0-9 to 0-2 in the second half to push five clear and looked almost home to the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Worse still, for Clare, was the fact that they’d been completely out-footballed in the half, with seven out of those nine Roscommon points coming from play, while two frees from Keelan Sexton were Clare’s only crumbs, but were hardly crumbs of comfort and not even consolation scores, because there’s no consolation in impending defeat.

It looked over; it looked like Clare hadn’t got it in the legs any more and at five adrift they were out on their feet and on the way out — they’d gone as hard as they could for as long as they could, but just when you thought the game was up, from somewhere, they found more and then more again. It was remarkable.

They never said die, and with death almost upon them, they rose from the ashes to secure a famous victory that was richly deserved, because the sheer force of their will refused to give up on a cause that looked lost — long lost.

Yes, it was an ambush as they hit Roscommon for 1-3 without reply which was as near as a football game could ever come to emulating Offaly’s famous hurling comeback against Limerick in 1994 — and mention of Offaly, it wasn’t too unlike the most famous All-Ireland win of all time for that matter.

“There was a goal in the game,” thundered Micheál O’Hehir 40 years ago when Mr Darby put the ball in the Kerry net.

There was a goal in Clare when Keelan Sexton fired home that penalty and there was more, just because Clare showed remarkable fortitude to find more.

It was brilliant stuff by Keelan Sexton and Jamie Malone in the way they stepped up and won it at the death. For the equalizing free that Malone won you could see Sexton nodding calmly before he placed the ball.

He was saying to those around him and to anyone who was listening, “I have this, I’ll score this”.

Confidence is an opiate and in that second as he nodded his head and mouthed those words and went through his pre-kick ritual he had the same aura, control, and sense of destiny Tony Kelly had when he squared up to that sideline cut.

“I have this, I’ll score this.”

It was never in doubt. It was a thunderous whack of the O’Neill’s, a kick made much harder because of what was at stake, but easy because of the zen-like calm the Kilmurry Ibrickane player had in those seconds.

And Jamie Malone was the same — the Corofin man may have endured a tough time of it down his flank in the first half that provided a gateway to many Roscommon scores, but that sporting line of form being temporary and class being permanent explains away his wonder score to win the game.

Apart from kicking over the bar, Malone worked the score and wanted the kick. It was a score that once more represented Clare in microcosm as it parsed down their football into a single play.

It was the patience in the build-up, keeping possession and then the injection of pace to break the blanket, get sight of the posts and create the chance. It was perfection in those moments, especially because it was the winning score.

A few minutes earlier Clare manager Colm Collins looked crestfallen, but as he chewed gum as intensely as Alex Ferguson used to do back in his day he did as Ferguson always did — he stayed with it as much as the players, because the introduction of both David Tubridy and Gavin Cooney in the closing stages showed that the ambition was still there, with both turning out to have a profound influence on the winning of the game.

Cooney won the penalty thanks to a one-two with Eoin Cleary; Tubridy helped open things up with some simple, yet astute, passes in his role as a link-man in the attack. And, most importantly of all, he gave the final pass before Malone fired Clare to some championship history.

It was only Clare’s fourth time playing senior championship football in Croke Park.

In 1917 they lost by four to Wexford in the All-Ireland final. Seventy-five years later in 1992, the margin was out to five in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, while in the 2016 quarter-final Kerry beat them by nine.

What a way to buck history stretching back 105 years, turn it on its head and make history.

And, all because they never said die.

“The spirit, the determination and the guts of these fellas,” said Colm Collins. “These crowd; they’re never beaten; they’re never beaten and at no point do you give up on them ever; they proved it again and again and again and again.”

They went as hard as they could for as long as they could. And it was right to the very end. Again and again and again and again.

Anything is now possible as they look to that All-Ireland quarter-final. Anything.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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