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Clare super-fan John Joe Costelloe nails his colours to the mast as he looks forward to this Saturday’s All-Ireland Hurling Semi-Final against Kilkenny at Croke Park.

Clare inhabit Russian Roulette country

The clock struck 72 minutes when Peter Duggan’s flash of the ash directed the Cummins sliotar towards the goal. This was it. The final act of a stirring Clare revival that had now brought them to the cusp of giving the Croke Park attendance of 48,300 another 20 minutes.
From the sideline that was floated into the scoring zone seconds earlier David Fitzgerald emerged from a ruck of eight players, went goalwards and then passed back to Duggan whose reverse sweep looked like bringing the sides level until Eoin Murphy’s lightning reflexes produced the save of the year as he pushed it onto the black spot of the crossbar.
It hit it at exactly 72 minutes, a second more had passed before everyone realised what had happened, while seven had elapsed by the time a frantic effort to clear the ball by the Kilkenny backs fell to Diarmuid Ryan who stroked it over the bar for a consolation score.
A two-point game when it could have been level; a two-point game when it could have gone to extra-time; a two-point game and it was over.
That’s how close Clare were, after a great second half display in recovering from a 0-15 to 0-10 half-time deficit, with their challenge really igniting on the back of Shane O’Donnell’s wonder goal in the 63rd minute that levelled the sides at 1-20 apiece.
When the Éire Óg colossus, who sealed his second successive All-Star with the strike, rattled the net it seemed as if Clare would kick on, but it was Kilkenny that found more down the stretch, while Clare found that black spot.
And as dark a place as the black spot, because that’s what losing does.
It’s why this has a stench of now or never for Clare, win or bust, and all that and more.
You could say that the Munster final represented something similar as they were going into battle for the third successive year against their nearest opponents and biggest rivals, having lost the previous two in epic encounters for the ages.
Ditto here in the sense that Clare have been on the receiving end to Kilkenny these past two years in Croke Park at this penultimate round stage, but what sets All-Ireland semi-finals apart from Munster finals and makes the now or never all the more real is that it’s the last spin on the merry-go-round for the year if the result goes the wrong way.
Over. Out. Uncertainty about what the future holds. Indeed, you don’t rally see any future after it happens.
There’s no back door left to re-enter the championship again a few years later like there was after Munster – all that’s on the horizon is the no-mans-land of a long wait to enter through the front door again in next year’s Munster Championship. That’s nearly nine months.
Nine months will seem like a lifetime away in the losing dressing room – careers could be over by then and the chance could really be lost. Of course, if it happens to Clare they’ll come again because hope always springs forth, but when Saturday comes it must be a collective case of there being no tomorrows; no next year; no more the bridesmaids.
There’s only today. It’s a cliché and it’s the pursuit of perfection that’s as elusive as the Golden Fleece, but Clare need to pull a 70-minute performance from their gear bags, or as near as makes no difference.
A winning display, whatever way it comes. It can be as ugly as Kerry’s win over Derry last weekend, or with the splash of rock n’ roll that came with Galway’s win over Dublin. Whatever it takes, any which way.
It’s time, because although Clare’s days out in Croke Park have been so few over the past decades, the fact is that the last time Clare won there was in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay.
It must jar; it must end. Meanwhile, it goes without saying that it’s time to make a dent into what is a dreadful championship record against Kilkenny.
The 1997 All-Ireland semi-final win stands alone for Clare – a great day for sure en route to Clare proving their team of the decade credentials that year by winning a second All-Ireland.
It badly needs a companion, however, because since 1997 there’s always been something to beat them:
It was DJ Carey’s goal 15 minutes from the end that did for Kilkenny and Clare in ’99 as the Cats eased to a four-point win; six minutes is all it took DJ to get the defining goal in the 2002 All-Ireland final as his side had seven points to spare in the end.
The rot was stopped in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final when Anthony Daly’s sweeper system had Brian Cody in a spin, but after they survived with a draw the result of the replay was only going to go one way when the sweeper was deployed once more and after the ‘múinteoir’ in Cody had gone to school in between both games.
So, it has been since – another defeat in 2006 in the semi-final, while the no-show in the semi-final two years ago and the blackspot of Eoin Murphy’s crossbar have been the most recent culprits.
It’s stark – in the same way that it was for Clare going into the Munster Final. Clare’s lone Munster final win over Limerick was in 1995, with all the other final reverses from 1955, ’74, ’81, ’94, ’22 and ’23 not being sufficient to summon the defiance and Derring-do needed to buck history and then puck it into history.
Same dice here, just a different roll, while at the same time it’s a game of Russian Roulette where unlike the famous scene played out by Christopher Walken and Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter, the gun will be loaded when the trigger is finally pulled.
That scene played out by their characters, Mike and Nick, in The Deer Hunter is one of the tensest in movie history because of what was at stake; Saturday afternoon will be one of the tensest in Clare hurling history because of what’s at stake.
It’s the ramifications of what defeat means – they’ll be painted as the nearly team of this hurling generation having lost three Munster Finals and three All-Ireland semi-finals.
And, as stated earlier, it would kill them for 2024, while it could also kill them outright.
It’s for them to decide and hurl like that they’ve a lot more living and hurling to do.
In 2024. Forget 2025 and beyond.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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