What a game. What a performance. What a team. What might have been?
Allianz NHL Division 1 Quarter-Final
Laois hurlers almost produced the biggest shock in recent hurling history on Sunday afternoon, when a fantastic performance came close to toppling All-Ireland champions Clare.
With two minutes of normal time remaining, Brendan Reddin squeezed a shot past Patrick Kelly to leave two between the teams, with Laois supporters going into raptures at the thoughts of what they might witness.
Clare ultimately closed the game out, but they were made to battle all the way for it. Laois had to play with 14 men for over 50 minutes after Tom Delaney was sent off, in a bizarre incident where the referee didn’t deem the offence serious enough to award a free, as Clare were allowed to take a shot at goal. When that missed, he called play back and issued a red card.
The referee, Alan Kelly from Galway, could be discussed for much of the rest of this report, but the focus should be on Laois.
The progress they have made in a little over 12 months is incredible. Cheddar Plunkett has done more than save the Laois senior hurlers, he has reinvigorated them, given them a purpose and identity and is now watching them close the gap to the top teams at an impressive rate.
The players deserve huge credit as well, because the effort the have been showing is top class. Their single-minded determination to win every ball, every battle for possession and every lost cause is remarkable. It’s hard to pick out a player in any game who isn’t making a contribution. They have become consistent too, an elusive trait for Laois teams in recent times.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of it all, however, is that there is still so much room for improvement. They hit 11 wides in the first half, had three 21 yards frees saved in the second, and are still missing a good number of their panel.
Days like today make you realise how far you have come, but how far you still have to go too. Getting the extra five points to turn a game like this into a win is not easy, but Laois are at least making progress. Let’s not forgot, Clare had 20 points to spare over Laois in Ennis last summer. On Sunday, with an extra man for 51 minutes, they were four ahead at the final whistle, and lucky to have that much of a cushion.
In the early stages, it looked like the rout that Clare were expected to dole out to Laois was a distinct possibility, as they raced into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead after six minutes thanks to what you could describe as ‘generous’ refereeing from Alan Kelly.
Laois are always trying to pressure teams though, and when Clare made a mistake in their defence, Tommy Fitzgerald pounced to set up Neil Foyle, and he fired to the net.
Fitzgerald then added another himself as the confidence coursed through Laois, but Clare hit back. Four unanswered points, three of them from frees, had them back in front.
Both teams exchanged points as Laois got within one, with Delaney’s red card the next talking point. From the throw-in which resulted, Laois won possession, worked it to Cha Dwyer, and he fired them level.
A Matthew Whelan free then gave Laois the lead as they signalled their intent to keep fighting, but Clare finished the half strongly, and Shane O’Donnell showcased his goalscoring talents with a nice finish just before half time.
That meant Clare lead by three at the break, and another O’Donnell goal 10 minutes after half time helped them to open up an seven point lead, 2-15 to 1-11. Clare should have seen it out from there, but Laois were not about to roll over.
Thanks to Stephen Maher’s accuracy from placed balls, Laois could chip away at the Clare lead, and with ten minutes to go, Laois found themselves just four behind.
Clare were looking anxious, and a long range point from Aaron Cunningham looked to have settled their nerves, only for Brendan Reddin to get in behind the Clare defence and force a shot past Patrick Kelly.
That sent the sizeable Laois support into a frenzy, but Clare then showcased the experience they possess by closing the game out from there with two points.
That was the biggest difference between the teams - experience - but in every other respect, the gap between Laois and everyone else is getting smaller.
SCORERS - Laois: Stephen Maher 0-6 (frees), Brendan Reddin 1-1, Tommy Fitzgerald, Patrick Purcell 0-3 each, Neil Foyle 1-0, Matthew Whelan (one free, one 65), Wille Hyland 0-2 each, Cha Dwyer, Brian Stapleton 0-1 each; Clare: Colin Ryan 0-10 (0-8 frees), Shane O’Donnell 2-0, Conor McGrath 0-4, Tony Kelly 0-3, Aaron Cunningham 0-2, Cathal McInerney, John Conlon, Patrick O’Connor, Bobby Duggan 0-1 each.
LAOIS: Eoin Reilly; John A Delaney, Brian Campion, Brian Stapleton; Joe Fitzpatrick, Matthew Whelan, Tom Delaney; Patrick Purcell, Dwane Palmer; Stephen Maher, John Purcell, Willie Hyland; Cha Dwyer, Neil Foyle, Tommy Fitzgerald. Subs: Ross King for Foyle (half time), Patrick Whelan for J Purcell (42 mins), Brendan Reddin for Dwyer (53 mins), PJ Scully for Fitzgerald (68 mins)
CLARE: Patrick Kelly; David McInerney, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney; Brendan Bugler, Conor Ryan, Patrick O’Connor; Patrick Donnellan, Colin Ryan; Peter Duggan, Tony Kelly, John Conlon; Bobby Duggan, Shane O’Donnell, Conor McGrath. Subs: Aaron Cunningham for Donnellan (46 mins), Cathal McInerney for Duggan (52 mins), Jack Browne for Dillon (58 mins), David Reidy for Conlon (73 mins)
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway)