East Kerry Championship: Final
Killarney Legion v Dr Crokes
Sunday at 2.15pm
Losing to your fiercest rivals is never a pleasant experience but the outcome of Sunday’s Killarney derby, an O’Donoghue Cup final no less, will be particularly excruciating for either Legion or the Crokes.
The fact of the matter is that neither of these sides have achieved what they set out achieve in 2019. Though they have sampled contrasting levels of success in recent years, both Legion and Crokes started out in January expecting to win. Competitions have come and gone, however, and so too have opportunities to pick up silverware. For Stephen Stack and Edmund O’Sullivan, this weekend’s East Kerry Championship final could be a season-defining moment.
Unfortunately for this undeniably talented Legion team, that coveted piece of silverware remains as elusive as ever. My clubmates won’t thank me for bringing it up but it’s now 25 years since that Club Championship victory over Waterville, the club’s last triumph of note at senior level. This will be Legion’s fifth O’Donoghue Cup final since 2013 (sixth including the 2014 replay) but, remarkably, you have to go all the way back to 1976 for the club’s last win at district level.
It would mean an awful lot to this current crop of players to get over the line this time out. And for manager Stephen Stack, the next 60 minutes of football will make all the difference when it comes to grading his first year in charge. It might seem harsh but that’s the nature of the beast, and no one will be more acutely aware of that than Stack himself.
If Legion can upset the odds and beat the Crokes, the rather limp County Championship exit at the hands of St Brendan’s will be a distant memory.
For a generation of Crokes players and supporters, winning is all they’ve known.
The club’s senior team have won at least one major trophy (i.e. County Championship, Club Championship, O’Donoghue Cup, Division 1 of the County League, Munster Club or All-Ireland Club) in each of the past 16 seasons, an incredible run that has seen them capture no fewer than 40 titles.
Now, unexpectedly, Crokes stand on the brink of their first trophyless season since 2003.
The All-Ireland, Club Championship and County Championship finalists will be favourites to beat the Legion – they have done so twice already this season – but it’s certainly an uncomfortable position to find themselves in.
Legion’s preparations have been hindered by injuries to some key players, perhaps most notably two of their Kerry panelists, James O’Donoghue and Danny Sheahan. O’Donoghue picked up the sponsor’s Man of the Match award in last weekend’s semi-final against Gneeveguilla despite being forced off midway through the second half with a lower leg injury. The former Footballer of the Year appeared to be in some distress and you don’t need me to tell you that he would be a huge loss if he’s unavailable for the final.
Sheahan, meanwhile, has had surgery on a shoulder problem so he will not be available. The tough-tackling full back, who was called up to Peter Keane’s extended panel during the 2019 season, is another big loss for Legion as he would be the natural choice to pick up Crokes’ top scorer, Tony Brosnan.
Team captain Pádraig Lucey missed the semi-final but he is expected to make his return on Sunday.
Jonathan Lyne and Podge O’Connor have been in really good form of late and bainisteoir Stack will need to get serious performances from them, and from everyone else, if his side are to bridge that 25-year gap.
For their part, Dr Crokes had to make do without experienced defenders Fionn Fitzgerald and David O’Leary for their semi-final while David Shaw and Jordan Kiely remain longer-term casualties. They still had quite a strong line-up for that victory over Spa, however, with the front eight of Johnny Buckley, Daithí Casey, Micheál Burns, Gavin O’Shea, Brian Looney, Tony Brosnan, Mark O’Shea and Kieran O’Leary looking particularly imposing.
Burns kicked five points in a Man-of-the-Match display while the younger O’Shea cousin, Mark, chipped in with 1-1 from full forward. Tony Brosnan added 1-4, a relatively low return by his extremely high standards.
Normally the O’Donoghue Cup is an added bonus for the Crokes but considering the way the year has gone so far, Sunday’s final takes on far greater significance.
Motivation will be at an all-time high because, in truth, the only way 2019 could get any worse for them is if they lose to Legion in the O’Donoghue Cup final.
That’s the difference here: victory for Legion would make their year, defeat for Crokes would break theirs.
The Crokes, who are gunning for their 13th East Kerry Championship since the turn of the century, are favourites. There’s no denying that. Legion will be hoping that three final defeats in seven months has had an adverse affect on the old enemy’s confidence but they’ll need everyone at it on the day regardless. If one or two key players are unavailable, it obviously makes things more difficult.
One thing’s for sure: it won’t be one for the faint of heart.