There are very few Dr Crokes footballers who hold fond memories of All-Ireland Club semi-final afternoons and, in truth, the latter has never been too kind to the Killarney outfit.
It’s a fixture Dr Crokes have grown wary of, mutual trust has long been eroded. A seventh provincial crown may have been annexed in devastating fashion last November, but it doesn’t change the fact they head to Limerick today more in hope than expectation.
That attitude is no reflection of the present crop, rather it is shaped by a handful of February dates which produced anything but a happy ending.
Crokes won their first Munster Club title in the autumn of 1990, setting up an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Salthill-Knocknacarra the following spring. The spark was absent, though, and the Kerry side fell 3-9 to 2-6.
A year later, Crokes made for Tuam Stadium to face this afternoon’s opponents, who had shocked Salthill in the Galway final.
Current manager Pat O’Shea lined out, as did Johnny Buckley’s father, Mike, with Colm Cooper as the team mascot. Corofin goalkeeper Martin McNamara was sent off and the Killarney men advanced 3-4 to 1-5.
Ten years ago, Pat O’Shea steered them to a seven-point win over Moorefield. From today’s side, Michael Moloney, Luke Quinn, Ambrose O’Donovan, Brian Looney, Kieran O’Leary and Cooper all featured.
It’s a result that now stands in dreadful rather than splendid isolation, given the years of hardship which followed. Harry O’Neill jokes it was he who had the “honour” of overseeing Dr Crokes for the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Crossmaglen. O’Neill stepped down as manager for the following campaign, with Noel O’Leary and Vince Casey taking the reins.
Two further semi-finals were contested. Same result each time. St Patrick’s Day in Croker was not for them.
The men from the south led 1-5 to 0-1 following Daithi Casey’s 20th-minute goal. They never kicked on, though. O’Neill is adamant this is the semi-final which should not have been lost.
“They got 1-1 just before half-time and that brought them right back into the game. It was a game we let go. There were little changes we could have made during the game to counteract some of the stuff they did. They brought on David Mckenna and we didn’t deal with him. He gave them a platform around the middle. Of the three successive semi-finals we contested, we played our best football in 2012. Down here in Killarney, they’d probably say we should have won them all. Personally, I feel we left that one behind.”
“Did you ever hear of the horror story?” asked Noel O’Leary of the press afterwards. “This is what it was.”
The Dr Crokes boss couldn’t have put it much better as his charges failed to show at Thurles. O’Neill was in the stand and felt the 19th-minute injury to Ambrose O’Donovan was pivotal.
Another injury. This one of a far more serious nature.
“Colm [Cooper] going off had a major impact,” recalls O’Neill. “Sometimes you might get a response from lads when one of the team leaders goes off, other times it will affect the players.
“It gave Castlebar a good injection knowing they were taking on a Crokes team minus Colm Cooper. They banged in a couple of goals and we never looked like clawing it back.”
O’Neill serves as selector on the current management team and he’d be lying if he said these three games hadn’t informed their thinking over the past few weeks.
“Unfortunately, our record in semis isn’t good. We played in three semi-finals and lost to a team from a different province on each occasion. Whatever about the level we reached in Munster to get us to those semis, we weren’t able to get up to the required level in those games.
“Then you have Corofin and they were there previously. They’ve come through a semi-final and gone on to win an All-Ireland.
“They’ve been there, done that and worn the t-shirt. We haven’t. The previous semi-finals, we feel our lads didn’t fulfil their potential. We feel there is more in us and that we are better than we showed on those occasions. We are hoping we come off the pitch the next day and at the very least we will have fulfilled our potential.”
The curtain fell on their 2016 season on December 5, but instead of downing tools, the team trained right through Christmas.
“In previous years, we would have been playing competitive games right up to Christmas. Our hand was forced a small bit this time. Hopefully, the preparation we have done this time is the right one. That’s not saying the preparation in the past wasn’t done right. You’re just hoping something different will click. We’re going in as underdogs.
“In the previous semis, there was an expectation that Crokes were going to go on and be in Croke Park on March 17. Maybe being underdogs will take some of the pressure off the players and they might perform a bit better.”