Their Kerry SFC semi-final success at Fitzgerald Stadium on Saturday afternoon replicated the script that had been penned in their quarter-final victory the previous Sunday. Again they only had a wafer-thin margin to rely on at the final whistle. Again they had to withstand a ferocious late onslaught from stubborn opponents, with West Kerry proving as difficult to overcome as Austin Stacks had been. And again it was Kieran O’Leary, deservedly bestowed with the man of the match award, with the critical second-half points when they needed it.
This six-day period may define Dr Crokes’ season. They are still standing after 120 minutes of serious combat and on the cusp of retaining their title, a feat that has eluded them since 1914.
Manager Harry O’Neill slumped against the dressing-room wall afterwards, breathless after a frenetic finish.
“It was a titanic struggle. We played good football at the start but we knew the pressure West Kerry would put on us and that they would try to impose their game. One of the older lads said there in the dressing room after that a few years ago we’d have lost that game. That’s a great sign of the resilience and composure in the team.”
Those are the plaudits for Dr Crokes. But there are also problems.
Last season they had cushions of 11 points and six points at the end of championship encounters with West Kerry. On Saturday they could only rely on a single white flag for protection and that serves to illustrate how difficult it has been to scale the heights they set in 2010. Of course there have been mitigating circumstances. Their preparations had been pockmarked with interruptions and their defence has been robbed of towering figures Mike Moloney and Shane Doolan. Yet O’Neill agreed the sloppiness of their passing remains a concern.
“At crucial stages today we turned over soft ball and that’s not good enough. If we keep going like that, we’re not going to get over the line some day.
“The confidence just doesn’t seem to be in our play at the moment. But you take the likes of Smiler (Mike Moloney) and Shane Doolan out of the backline, and they’re big losses. And I just felt our fellas looked tired out there today, playing six days after a Stacks match that had gone down to the wire.”
The fortnight’s break until they go toe-to-toe with Mid Kerry will be a welcome relief, particularly for midfielder Ambrose O’Donovan who had to cry off with a back injury midway through the first half here. And Dr Crokes produced spells of devastating attacking football that will nourish their hopes ahead of that decider. Colm Cooper lobbed over a couple of majestic points in the first five minutes before pulling deep, Andrew Kenneally got through an amount of hard work in the first half while O’Leary turned in a show-stopping second-half display.
It is 15 years since West Kerry contested a county final and they came desperately close to arresting that drought. The pre-match speculation over Darragh Ó Sé featuring was quashed as he stood on the terrace, scouting talent ahead of his role as Kerry U21 selector next year.
They suffered a rocky start but when 2010 Kerry minor Jason Hickson lashed in a fantastic 13th minute goal that vaulted them back into contention, they only trailed 0-7 to 1-3 at the break. They drew level at 0-9 to 1-6 with a lovely Emmett Kennedy point but tellingly conceded three scores on the bounce.
They never gave up though, Tomás Ó Sé bombing forward, Alan Fitzgerald pulling the strings from centre-forward and Breandán O’Driscoll growing in stature. Even veteran Gene Farrell, a survivor of Kerry senior outfits from the mid-’90s, was thrown into the action. Hickson trimmed the gap to one with ten minutes left but, fittingly, O’Leary floated over a point in response for Dr Crokes and despite an injury-time Fitzgerald free, West Kerry could not level.
Scorers for Dr Crokes: K O’Leary 0-4, C Cooper 0-3 (1f), A Kenneally 0-2, D Casey (f), J Doolan, B Looney (45), J Buckley 0-1 each.
Scorers for West Kerry: J Hickson 1-1, A Fitzgerald 0-3 (2fs), D O’Sullivan (f), E Kennedy, B O’Driscoll, E Hickson, SM Ó Conchúir 0-1 each.
DR CROKES: A Kelly; J Payne, L Quinn, D O’Leary; F Fitzgerald, E Brosnan, S Myers; A O’Donovan, J Buckley; A Kenneally, D Casey, B Looney; C Cooper, K O’Leary, J Doolan.
Subs: B McMahon for O’Donovan (23), C Brady for Looney (50), C Fitzgerald for Myers (54), S O’Neill for Kenneally (56).
WEST KERRY: T Mac an tSaoir (An Ghaeltacht); D Ó Sé (An Ghaeltacht), P O’Sullivan (Lispole), M Ó Sé (An Ghaeltacht); T Ó Sé (An Ghaeltacht), J Farrell (Annascaul), E Hickson (Annascaul); E Kennedy (Annascaul), JB Spillane (Castlegregory); B O’Driscoll (Annascaul), A Fitzgerald (Castlegregory), N McKenna (Annascaul); J Hickson (Annascaul), D O’Sullivan (Lispole), SM Ó Conchúir (An Ghaeltacht).
Subs: G Farrell (Annascaul) for D O’Sullivan (50), J Scanlon (Annascaul) for Spillane (56), M Ó Sé (Castlegregory) for Ó Conchúir (59).
Referee: Paul Hayes (Kerins O’Rahilly’s).