It’s the final all the neutrals wanted. The thoroughbreds against the colts. Brosnan against Clifford. The team of this decade against, according to some, the team of the next. It’s Killarney against Killarney (and surrounding areas) in a perfectly pitched county final that has the whole town talking.
And, rather conveniently, this game for the ages involving seven clubs from Killarney (or nearby) will take place in Austin Stack Park in Tralee, which is just 30 minutes away by car.
If St Brendan’s were playing Austin Stacks, for example, in the final, would the game be in Killarney? Probably not because that would make no sense. But look, it is what it is. (And it is ridiculous.)
THE CROKES ERA
The rest of Kerry has been plotting and praying for the Crokes’ demise for a long time now but the plans have failed and the prayers have gone unanswered. Win on Sunday and the club from Lewis Road will claim their ninth county title since the turn of the millennium and their second four-in-row since 2010. In terms of Kerry football, it has been an era of unprecedented domination and one that we’re unlikely to witness again in our lifetime.
Nothing breeds antipathy quite like a successful neighbour and there’s no denying that Crokes’ reign of terror has been difficult for everyone else to stomach. ‘Hate’ is a strong word but it’s apt in this case; a lot of people, especially in East Kerry, hate the Crokes. It’s simply a by-product of being at the top for so long and I have no doubt that no one of a black and amber persuasion would want it any other way.
For the craic, I ran a poll on my Instagram story this week asking ‘Who will win on Sunday?’ Bear in mind that the game, according to the bookmakers, could scarcely be tighter. It’s a toss of a coin. Too hard to call.
In my poll, East Kerry won by a landslide.
Now, I’ve no doubt that some of my followers genuinely think that East Kerry will win, but only a tiny minority of non-Crokes players or supporters opted for a Crokes win. Virtually everyone else, regardless of their allegiances, predicted a Crokes defeat. They say that wish is father to the thought…
Some observers (this journalist included) wondered if the Crokes might be uncharacteristically vulnerable this season. After suffering that demoralising defeat to Corofin in the All-Ireland club final in March, their manager, Pat O’Shea, stepped down and Edmund O’Sullivan took the wheel. Timing-wise, it wasn’t ideal (not that O’Shea or the Crokes could have done anything about it) and rivals were hoping that a transition period was imminent.
As it turned out, chinks in the armour did start to appear. After being pushed close by Legion, they were defeated by Rathmore in the Club Championship and although they eventually qualified top of the group, the 2017 and 2018 champions were turned over by Austin Stacks in the final.
A number of senior players were afforded time off in May and June while others headed off to the United States for the summer, which led to the club fielding weakened teams for much of the County League. These were unprecedented measures for the Crokes but clearly it was felt that players needed a break after a gruelling 2018 campaign, which effectively lasted 15 months in total.
So, all things considered, it wasn’t exactly a normal year in terms of preparation for the County Championship but when the big one rolled around, it was business as usual for the holders. They demolished Rathmore in Round 1 and relatively comfortable victories over St Kieran’s and Kenmare set up a semi-final date with old foes South Kerry. Bryan Sheehan and co. appeared to have them beaten two weeks ago but the irrepressible Tony Brosnan scored 1-1 at the end of extra time to snatch a draw.
The replay was far more straightforward for Edmund O’Sullivan’s side and here they are again, back in the final for the fourth year on the trot.
Benefitting from an injection of youth in the form of David Naughton, Michael Potts and Mark O’Shea, the Crokes are motoring well, although unfortunately they haven’t made it to the decider all in one piece.
Jordan Kiely and David Shaw, two young ballers who are capable of fashioning a score out of nothing, are still out and no fewer than three starters, Kieran O’Leary, David O’Leary and John Payne, suffered head/facial injuries in the South Kerry rematch last weekend. Each incident seemed to be nasty enough but knowing the players in question, it will take a brave doctor to rule them out of the final.
On paper, the one major advantage the Crokes have over East Kerry is experience. Guys like Michael Moloney, John Payne, Brian Looney, Johnny Buckley, Daithí Casey and Kieran O’Leary in particular have seen and done it all before at this level, whereas their opponents are all playing in their first ever senior county final.
However, speaking at the team’s county final press night at Fossa GAA, captain Dan O’Donoghue was quick to dispel the notion that he and his teammates are inexperienced.
“Anyone who’s on the team has been playing senior football with their clubs and maybe with East Kerry since they were 17 or 18, so although we’re young, we’re not novices. We’re not young in football terms so there are no excuses really.
“We’ve always wanted to have a crack at the Crokes. We haven’t drawn them over the past few years and being local rivals, it makes for an interesting challenge.”
Interesting is right. It’s very difficult to predict the match-ups for Sunday’s finale; the respective managers, Jerry and Edmund O’Sullivan, are sure to have a trick or two up their sleeves.
One would expect Kerry captain Gavin White to pick up the in-form Paudie Clifford, and the midfield battle between Johnny Buckley and Liam Kearney will also be pivotal.
Crokes will have a job on their hands keeping East Kerry’s star man David Clifford quiet and it may take two defenders, possibly Fionn Fitzgerald and Michael Moloney, to slow the two-time All-Star down. At the other end of the pitch, the championship’s top scorer, Tony Brosnan, will also require extra special attention. Brosnan has been electrifying of late so whoever gets the nod to mark him will certainly have their hands full.
As a divisional side comprised of six clubs (Spa, Listry, Fossa, Glenflesk, Firies and Gneeveguilla), you might expect East Kerry to be less “together” than a team like the Crokes. The players who will take to the field in the red and white on Sunday only join up for one specific part of the football calendar. For the other 10 months of the year, they’re actually rivals as opposed to teammates. But by divisional team standards, this particular selection of players know each other quite well.
“Togetherness hasn’t been an issue with this team,” Paudie Clifford explains. “Everyone gets on very well. A lot of us are around the same age and we already knew each other from school and from college, and we’ve also had success together underage with East Kerry. The few older fellas we have are very easy to get along with too, so it’s not too bad that way.”
His captain also revealed that additional steps, such as going to recovery suites together after games, have helped to expedite the bonding process.
“The whole idea is to build a club mentality,” the Spa man says.
They will need to be close-knit if they want to dethrone arguably the greatest Kerry club team of all time.
WHO WILL WIN?
It’s really tough to call this one. If Crokes have a full complement of players then I would still have them as marginal favourites but with so much young talent in East Kerry’s ranks, it does seem as though it’s only a matter of time before the divisional side reach the promised land.
Sunday could signal the beginning of a new era for the men from the east, or Dr Crokes could make it four-in-a-row in typical Dr Crokes fashion.
So, the big question: do I invite the wrath of the Crokes by picking East Kerry or do I invite the wrath of six East Kerry clubs by picking the Crokes?
VERDICT: A great game of football.