Dr Crokes ready to match the men of ‘92

The indefatigable John Evans — he of Knocknagoshel, Tipperary, Roscommon, and several points in between, though mainly Killorglin — tweeted this week a modest little reminder of the last Kerry club to win an All- Ireland senior title.

Johnny Buckley with his father and Dr Crokes selector Mike Buckley in the Crokes clubhouse in Killarney. Picture: Cathal Noonan
Johnny Buckley with his father and Dr Crokes selector Mike Buckley in the Crokes clubhouse in Killarney. Picture: Cathal Noonan

It’s probably worth recording it was Laune Rangers and that Evans was in charge, but he hardly thought he’d wait 21 years “to hand over the baton”, as he might say. Twenty-one years and counting.

They’ve scratched a lot of heads about that in Killarney.

“We had one hand on the cup in 2007,” admits a rueful Harry O’Neill, selector with the present squad. Oisin McConville, the 14 steps claiming a last-ditch equaliser in Croke Park and all that.

They’ve also lost three semis in a row since. Much as the club’s current talents would like to move on from 1992 wooden picture frames, that squad of All-Ireland winners retain a revered status in the club’s headquarters on Lewis Road, across the road from Fitzgerald Stadium.

“Any medal I bring into the house, he (his father, Mike) has the trump card to throw down on top of it,” Kerry’s Johnny Buckley accepts. And Johnny’s got a Celtic Cross and five county championships already.

“Dad will throw it down and smile. ‘Have you one of them yet?’ I was up on his shoulders in 1992, up the steps of the Hogan Stand. In our club the fellas that won the All-Ireland club are special.”

Here’s the thing. Mike Buckley never played in that final, but when someone like Pat O’Shea describes him as among the “best club players Dr Crokes have had”, it’s worthy of interrogation.

Mike Buckley — a selector now with O’Shea’s dyed-in-the-Crokes management team — was a full-forward of size and stature and considerable football nous. He wasn’t quick. He was the oak tree that served the tidy ones, O’Shea, Connie Doherty, Seanie O’Shea, Ger O’Shea.

He had played in the semi-final 25 years ago (against Corofin, like this year) and the final plan was that Danny Cooper (Colm’s brother) would sit as an 11 on Thomas Davis’ talisman at centre-back, Paul Curran, with Vince Casey to come out from full-forward in the second half to facilitate the arrival of Buckley. Except nobody planned for Cooper being sent off minutes into the second half. Crokes never made a sub that day. Does it matter to Mike Buckley? Hardly now. His status as a Crokes made man is a mortal lock.

But the hand-us-down from that 1992 squad is all-pervading. Many of them have handled the blessed book of Dr Crokes football up through the grades.

“The team in ‘92, we had a style of playing that was unusual at the time,” says Mike Buckley now. “We had a lot of light forwards, so we tried to move the ball quickly. When we turned to coaching, we ingrained a similar philosophy in the next generation — getting it to your inside forwards quickly. As a consequence, we developed hugely skilful inside forwards. There was an evolution certainly. I don’t think we did it deliberately, it was just taught that way by our mentors and peers.”

His son, like so many of the present-day peers, is grateful: “A lot of it is the players you are looking up to when you are a young fella,”

Johnny, 27, explains. “Gooch grew up watching Pat O’Shea dummy soloing fellas, and emulating it. Over the past couple of decades, young lads are watching the senior team playing a lovely style of football. In training that is still very much promoted.”

Johnny peers out the Lewis Road window to the gloom outside.

“The Under 14s are out there training in the hail and rain, thinking ‘this is what Gooch or Daithi or Kieran O’Leary is doing’.”

Buckley Snr hasn’t just coached his son since he was 12, he works every day cheek-by-jowl with Johnny in their all-conquering Kerry Coaches business. “I see more of him than I do my fiancée — and we’re getting married later this year,” Buckley Jnr smiles.

It’s a recipe for bust-ups and tension and aggravation and all of these might surface if the Buckleys weren’t just about the most phlegmatic pair of individuals you’ll meet on a day’s business.

“Johnny is a very laid back character, a bit like myself,” Mike Buckley concedes. “We don’t fight about football or anything else really.”

“I don’t think we have had major arguments in work or football,” Johnny adds, and to prove the point, they concur when the subject of Crokes under-achievement nationally surfaces.

“It’s a discussion that takes place regularly,” Mike says. “The 1992 team probably didn’t go on to win enough either, subsequent to that All-Ireland. There have been disappointments in 2007 and the three All-Ireland semi-finals since. In a game of football, any game, you have to perform within the white lines and the timeframe allowed. On the big days, for whatever reason, we didn’t do enough. We have failed to do it on more days than we have done it. That’s a fact.”

The three losses in 2012-14 to Crossmaglen, Ballymun Kickhams, and Castlebar left their own “residue”, Buckley Snr adds.

“Things happened — Gooch got that bad injury after 20 minutes against Castlebar in 2014, you can’t legislate for that. It was a huge dampener for the club and the county. There was a lot of despondency after that and we were beaten at home for the first time ever by (Killarney rivals) Legion in the county championship in 2015, which was sore. There were wounds.”

And wounds to heal. Hence the club went back to their own prophet last year, and Pat O’Shea went about compiling the most Crokes-looking management team ever created. “He created a very nice team and vibe,” is the way Mike Buckley, one of his selectors, puts it. “We feed off each other.” The players benefit too, even if it is from a lash of O’Shea’s waspish tongue.

“He has his moments and he was that way 25 years ago,” laughs Buckley Snr, who shared the full-forward line with the impish O’Shea.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve, a very passionate man about Crokes,” agrees Johnny. “We’ve all been on the end of a ‘chat’ with Pat, but you learn more in that couple of minutes than you would talking to others for a length of time. He knows his stuff.”

From Dick Fitzgerald to Small Jer Leary to Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, there are plenty of reminders of Dr Crokes pre-eminent place in Kerry football even if they weren’t framed on the wall in the clubhouse.

There are players who performed in Croke Park for Kerry last year who may not start today’s All-Ireland final and if that’s a source of tension, it’s also a sign of strength. Besides, all these issues are sorted in-house.

“Cliquish isn’t the right word,” Mike Buckley says, “there’s a camaraderie or a bond in Crokes, we look after each other. Pat would be hugely cognisant of this as well, even away from football. In our coach business, we take on drivers who would have played with the Crokes. It’s just looking after each other.

“We need to do that too on Friday,” the selector remarks. “We know the ability our players have. We genuinely believe we have the best team in the country, but we need to prove it on a given day, which is March 17.

“Everyone is acutely aware of what has gone before us in this club and the importance of preserving and enhancing that legacy.”

Time for a new trump card.

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