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Mikey Butler does a semi-final winning job

Kilkenny 2-26

Clare 0-20


Main man: Mikey Butler celebrate Kilkenny’s victory with Walter Walsh

Main man: Mikey Butler celebrate Kilkenny’s victory with Walter Walsh

©INPHO/Evan Treacy

Main man: Mikey Butler celebrate Kilkenny’s victory with Walter Walsh

IF ever there was a metaphor for what had unfolded, it came in a brief exchange at the end of this All- Ireland semi-final. Tony Kelly took possession of Mikey Butler’s jersey, turned it inside out and put it over his head. It stuck to him.

Kelly has been rampant for much of the last three years. He has had his tight spots in games, even as recently as the All-Ireland quarter-final against Wexford when Shane Reck again shut many of the avenues available to him. But Kelly inevitably finds a way and did in Thurles that evening too.

Kelly has scored at least a point from play, and more often than not much more, in his last 27 championship games. Some of his biggest tallies have come against the best. You have to go back five years, their Munster semi-final win over Limerick, since he was last held scoreless from play.

But here Butler, in his first full championship season, shut him out completely. It was extraordinary to see Clare’s talisman’s impact reduced to winning a couple of frees that he converted himself. Apart from that, two first-half wides but no other obvious input from play.

When Clare conduct their inevitable post-mortem, how they didn’t find ways to involve Kelly more in the game will be the obvious starting point. How?

A lot rests with Butler’s tenacious presence for that. It takes extraordinary concentration to be able to go over 70 minutes in the company of a player of Kelly’s quality and not miss a step at some stage that gives him an opening. But it also demands strong technical acumen.

Butler’s success on Kelly was the beginning for Kilkenny but he had help, everywhere. Much will be made of the Ballyhale influence up front. Between TJ Reid, Adrian Mullen and Eoin Cody, they scored 18 points. But the O’Loughlin Gaels defensive trio, Butler, Huw Lawlor and Paddy Deegan, conceded none in the company of the players who started against them. It’s quite the feat that only one starting Clare forward, Shane O’Donnell, scored from play.

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David Fitzgerald operates in an advanced role too and he picked enough holes for three points but it could have been 1-7 if his eye was in. But no return from the starting full-forward line and Kelly underlines how aggressive and effective Kilkenny’s defence was. Once again, Brian Cody has taken a new group and crafted something

that is greater than the individual parts to reach a 17th All-Ireland final in his 24 years.

It’s an extraordinary feat, given that only three of the starting team on Saturday – Eoin Murphy, Reid and Pádraig Walsh – are previous All-Ireland winners. And after an off season when the doubts around his stewardship appeared to grow within the county. But his capacity to propagate continued to abound.

It also avoided a third successive All-Ireland semi-final defeat, something that was clearly a factor.

“I’d say that would be in any real genuine sportspeople’s minds at all times,” said Cody. “You remember like we were here last year we didn’t win it, we were here the year before.

“Everybody wants to get to the All-Ireland final and of course I would say in everybody’s mind and everybody’s heart, they would be saying, ‘Look lads, we can’t afford this to happen again’. Because it’s a tough feeling when you do lose it.”

Cody acknowledged that the four-week break had been ideal, allowing the group to plan better after a hectic spring and early summer schedule. In their Nowlan Park crucible, it was clearly time well spent.

The sense of freshness they brought was in contrast to the weariness in some of Clare’s play. They didn’t attack the ball and were never able to upset Kilkenny’s aerial supremacy. Lawlor, Deegan and Richie Reid at one end, TJ Reid at the other had control of the skies and made it count.

The Clare management, led by Brian Lohan who was unable to conduct post-match media interviews because of back discomfort, have been lauded for their direct approach the team have taken but here they didn’t read the signs early enough. They missed John Conlon, withdrawn beforehand and replaced by Páidí Fitzpatrick who hadn’t the bank of games behind him that this level needs and by half-time he was gone.

Clare’s finishing was poor too. Their 24, in addition to four shots dropping short, reeked of shocking efficiency.

This was classic Kilkenny though with the ‘long grass’ mentioned in more than one despatch afterwards.

They hassled, harried, blocked and hooked their opponents into eventual submission. For a team who had taken the same approach to Limerick in the Munster final just four weeks earlier, it was a surprise to see most of the Clare players unable to summon a response. That Munster final loss took more out of them than they had reckoned with.

For TJ Reid, it was another performance to roll back the years after a modest provincial campaign by his standards. Clare never got to grips with him, nor could they track Adrian Mullen’s movement, while Cian Kenny popped up everywhere.

That first half drew comparisons to their 2008 All-Ireland final first half against Waterford. And that was produced by the greatest team ever. But it’s up there, no doubt.

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