They have won five of the last seven Kerry football championship, and on days like these, it’s hard to figure how Dr Crokes contrive to lose any game at all.
They’re like the handsome friend you regret introducing to your date. They can make you look bad in a hurry.
At home in Kerry, Crokes have been doing this to more garlanded teams than The Nire for years, running up silly scores in Division One of a very competitive County League.
But once in a while, not very often, they show up disjointed, perhaps a little arrogant and there to be knocked out of the orchestral manoeuvres on display in Mallow yesterday.
Their All-Ireland semi-final opponents, Corofin, have 10 weeks to plant a stick in Crokes’ spokes. Indeed the timeframe itself between provincial final and last four has been the undoing of Dr Crokes in the past.
Their selector Harry O’Neill confirmed afterwards they will employ the lessons of past campaigns that stopped short of Croke Park to periodise their preparations to a tee this time.
Once they are done with next Sunday’s arm-wrestle of an East Kerry divisional final with Rathmore, they will spend December deciding between push and pull.
The Waterford football champions would have to comb the wreckage to extract any solace from yesterday’s Munster final mauling, but they had the unfortunate experience of meeting a Crokes side at the peak of its pomp.
The fluency they’ve been seeking through the autumn was facilitated, undoubtedly, by hapless opposition, but few sides could have lived with Crokes’ movement yesterday.
Pat O’Shea is a demanding coach and he was still barking at his defenders to keep their shape in a walk-through of a second half, but even he might have been relieved his players essentially declared at the break, when they led 3-9 to 0-1.
The Nire dressing room at half-time was like a bad out-of-body experience for management and players, the sort that only those who’ve had to summon strength to re-emerge for a second half truly understand. “Shell-shocked” is the term employed by manager Benji Whelan.
Their coach, Jerome Stack, is a Listowel man who knew better than anyone in that room of remorse what Crokes will do if they’re let.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” he sighed afterwards. “Nothing that the Crokes did surprised me. Perhaps when you face that sort of unit, you must take cognisance of being more defensive, but The Nire have played a lot of positive football this year in Waterford, and it’s hard to go away from what you believe in.”
Stack played against Crokes for Listowel and Castleisland, a warrior who would appreciate the folly of playing straight up ball against the Harlem Globetrotters.
“When you are playing football in Kerry, be it in league or Championship, there are so many different aspects to the game, be it defensive or offensive, and you get to test systems here, there, and everywhere. A club like The Nire, which also hurls, might get a stretch of four or five weeks where they play only football, so it’s very hard to play against what the Crokes bring.”
Daithi Casey helped himself to a first-half hat-trick, the third goal a microcosm of Dr Crokes — emphatic in its ruthless execution.
The Nire looked like that apocryphal boxer slumped on the stool in his corner explaining to the coach he’d hit the damn guy if he could only catch him. It took the Waterford champions 21 minutes to score by which time Crokes had 2-5 and Colm Cooper hadn’t even stretched his legs.
“They are great battlers and very good footballers,” Jerome Stack said, “and there looked a huge gulf in class today, but our lads didn’t show their true form. That’s the most disappointing thing.”
He’s also seen Crokes when the opposition gets robust and niggly with them, and the remaining obstacles to a trophy on St Patrick’s Day are considerable.
Stack knows, as does Pat O’Shea and his management team, that Corofin will bring their own big guns, but the depth of the Crokes squad is not lost on him, nor on those who recognise it as the difference between the Killarney side this season and in previous campaigns since 2010.
“With no disrespect to Carbery Rangers (whom The Nire defeated in Clonakilty in the Munster semi-final), the firepower you are looking at in the Crokes forwards is serious, and the lads they can bring into the attack — some of these lads have a couple of All-Ireland minor football medals with Kerry.”
Forwards Tony Brosnan, Jordan Kiely, Michael Burns, and the returning Chris Brady all got a bit of Munster final into their legs in the second half in Mallow, and if Crokes took their foot off the gas, the defensive shape that will be examined in the new year never relaxed. The Nire’s Conor Gleeson came to Mallow with a well-earned reputation as a corner forward of reckoning, but Crokes’ John Payne hardly gave him a sniff. Fionn Fitzgerald and Gavin White bring serious pace and mobility to the flanks, and Eoin Brosnan will relish turning into 2017 and his 19th season as a senior with the club.
From the uncomfortable vantage point of the Nire dugout, manager Benji Whelan accepted that Dr Crokes are a thing of beauty when they hit all the high notes together.
“If you are supporting Crokes or loving expansive football, then you are in heaven watching this sort of football,” he reflected.
“Can it get any better? I have a feeling if they put their mind to it, they could do it every day of the week.”
Dr Crokes ticked all the boxes in Mallow yesterday, but that much remains to be proved.
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