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How Shane O’Donnell and Clare are again threatening to become the story of the hurling summer

Clare goalscorer Shane O'Donnell is lifted by his team-mates as he lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after his hat-trick heroics in the s they celebrate with the after the game. GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay, Cork v Clare, Croke Park 28 September 2013; , Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Roy Curtis

He’s closing in on a decade older, no longer the boyband hurler who, beneath Saturday night lights, seized Croke Park’s title deeds with the charismatic charm of a helmeted, will-o’-the-wisp, goal-hungry Ed Sheeran.

Yet Shane O’Donnell and Clare are again threatening to become the story of the hurling summer.

Nine years have hurtled by since his teenage self utterly electrified an All-Ireland final replay, sprung from nowhere to score 3-3 in a fearless and swashbuckling masterclass.

As with Jason Sherlock in 1995, O’Donnell became one of those rare overnight GAA sensations, celebrated in caricature, a flamethrowing comic-strip hero.

Remember those fevered times?

Informed that he would start only a couple of hours before throw-in by Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald, the kid from Ennis morphed into a Banner D’Artagnan, delivering a succession of rapier-thrusts that did for Cork.

A thunderstorm of scores saw his face plastered across front and back pages. For a few weeks it was crazy, unsettling even. And then it ebbed as our short-attention spans moved onto the next story.

O’Donnell has lived a thousand lives since, a journey that has taken him from hurling’s green fields to Harvard, New England's storied Ivy League institution of higher learning.

There has been a degree in genetics, a Fulbright scholarship, a PhD in microbiology.

Less glamorous was an authentically terrifying battle with the worst effects of concussion, six weeks sick leave from work, hyper-sensitivity to light and sound.

22 May 2022; Shane O'Donnell of Clare is tackled by Calum Lyons of Waterford during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 5 match between Clare and Waterford at Cusack Park in Ennis, Clare. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

In his own words: “Absolute car crash stuff…eight out of 10 on nausea for the entire time.”

It obliterated his 2021 hurling season and, for the longest time, his future in the game hung in the balance.

As he tells Colm Keys in these pages, it was only in March, after detailed conversations with his specialist and a final thorough medical assessment, that he decided it might be okay to return to the playing fields.

The results have been dreamsome.

Waterford’s rapid disintegration, a collapse unimaginable after a league campaign that seemed to announce them as potential rivals to Limerick, has been the week’s most startling talking point.

At the other extreme of the emotional bandwidth, Clare supporters are again living on the edge of fantasy.

Tony Kelly, among that rare breed touched by the genius to elevate their chosen code to something close to art form, has inevitably been the poster boy of the Banner’s re-emergence.

Peter Duggan’s return combined with John Conlon’s powerhouse marshalling of the defence has made Clare a cold-house for any opponents who felt they might bully Brian Lohan’s team into submission.

And O’Donnell, reimagined as a cerebral wing-forward, has been a consistent, understated sensation.

His touch has been that of a man who could trap an unpinned grenade on his hurl without fear of it detonating.

Reaching for another sustained summer of transcendence, he has filled the role of deep-lying playmaker while also delivering an impressive flurry of scores.

O’Donnell contributed five points to the ransacking of the Déise on Sunday as Clare – cheered on by a boisterous support who have velcroed themselves to a team surfing a wave of momentum and affection – completed an unbeaten advance through shark infested round-robin waters.

Not 28 for another three weeks, it was just the latest display to showcase the entire force of his hurling intellect.

An instinctive, graceful athlete, one of liquid movement, O’Donnell’s return from debilitating illness seems to say that anything is possible.

Clare have won just four hurling All-Irelands, one in the quarter of a century since Ger Loughnane, a hypnotic, untameable, unapologetic force of nature brilliantly pushed out the boundaries and placed his county at the edgy epicentre of the small ball universe.

Limerick, emphatically, remain the courthouse in which pretentions of glory face their supreme judgement.

They were without Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane when they met Clare nine days ago, yet even with Gearoid Hegarty sent-off and their place in the provincial showpiece secured in advance, they declined to bow.

John Kiely’s side are likely to carry the force of an inferno into the Munster final.

But there is something about Clare’s momentum and the connection it has made with its people which suggests that they might be more than a fleeting early-season fad.

At the heart of it is O’Donnell, the kid who sent a nuclear wind surging through 2013 and, who, all these years on, is again whipping up a gale of hope.

One that is gusting down every Banner lane and carrying on its saffron and blue current, the unmistakable perfume of giddy hope.

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