Going into the final, Dr Crokes wanted to spread Slaughtneil out and resist getting into a dogfight, which is what the Ulster champions wanted. The strange thing was in a battle of wills nobody really got their way.
Crokes at times were able to take advantage of running through the middle, where Daithí Casey looked threatening and Brian Looney was able to kick a few good scores but the expansive game they prefer so much was lacking. Not that they will mind one iota, but we’ll come back to that.
Slaughtneil started well and looked more comfortable, yet slowly but surely they were edged out of the game by Crokes, whose superior fitness told its own story, especially when they were so keen on hanging onto the ball in the closing stages.
This game swung on a moment of madness by Pádraig Cassidy. When I say “moment of madness”, I really mean a millisecond, because almost as soon as Cassidy swung towards Kieran O’Leary, you could see he regretted it. He turned to Mickey Moran, who shook his head and they both knew what was going to happen.
It was so unfortunate for the lad and it was also so out of character for Slaughtneil, whose discipline has been exemplary, but on this occasion it let them down just when they needed to be at their best.
The sending-off came at the perfect time for Crokes too, as they were able to put together a plan at half-time for the remaining 30 or so minutes. They dropped a man back in front of the full-back line and shored the whole thing up.
From there, it was Crokes game to lose, but the only thing that surprised me was how little they did going forward in the second half. They were unwilling to go forward in numbers to seize the game. I thought there would have been a lot more in them, but they will say they didn’t have to show it.
Patsy Bradley epitomised Slaughtneil’s doggedness throughout, but the shots that were going over for Chrissy McKaigue against St Vincent’s in the semi-final were going wide this time around. Crokes were always able to get that one extra score and the Micheál Burns point was vital, considering there hadn’t been a score for eight minutes before it, when the score had stood at 1-6 apiece.
That Slaughtneil were reduced to two pointed frees in the second half tells you the type of game it was. Crokes had obviously prepared to win ugly and it helped their cause that the second half was very slow. Maurice Deegan may have done the game more of a favour by just moving things along, but the fact was Slaughtneil didn’t give Crokes enough to do or be worried about.
Crokes had a lot more variation when they did attack, but it was more a case of them toughing it out. It wasn’t pretty, to put it mildly, but having said all that, you can understand why they adopted that attitude. They had been stung too many times before and here the venom was all theirs. I was there in 2007 when Crossmaglen beat them in a replay, when I suppose you could say we came back from the death to salvage a draw.
That was just one of a lot of sickening defeats they had taken down through the years and it didn’t matter what way they got over the line, so long as it was them crossing it firstly. The performance was so at odds with how they beat Corofin, when they kept throwing bodies forward even when Corofin were pushing up on them.
On the ultimate day for grassroots, it was appropriate that TG4 chose one of the lesser lights in John Payne as their man of the match. It reflected the affair, when a lot of the unsung players came to the fore. There were flashes of excellence from Casey, Looney took his three points so well, and the guys sprung from the bench, Micheál Burns and Jordan Kiely, looked lively.
I don’t blame them for winning like this. I wouldn’t begrudge them anything, especially not Colm Cooper. What’s impressed me so much about him is how very much he’s been to the forefront of that club. He has taken defeats on the chin and kept plugging away. I think Gooch knew this day would come. His finish for the goal was brilliant, considering the little space he had to pull the trigger.
Poetic justice? When I look back on his career and the amount he has put into Dr Crokes, this triumph is no more than he deserves.