The men who can make the difference at Croke Park on St Patrick's Day.
Croke Park was once the 33-year-old’s playground but it can be again in more of a chairman-like role, delegating, empowering and briefing. He remains a fulcrum of the team but it’s around him that his team-mates move. Cooper might not be found as much inside his own 45 as Slaughtneil won’t be as keen to commit too many forward, which will suit the eight-time All-Star. He doesn’t need to be prominent for Crokes to win but he does have to feature.
Voted the player of the Munster championship, Casey’s strong form continued into the semi-final win over Corofin when he soloed from deep to set up Jordan Kiely for his goal. More assured and now looking as determined to win the ball back as he is when it’s in hand, he looks more of a complete player than the man dropped by Kerry two years ago. Along with Kieran O’Leary and Brian Looney, he brings urgency to the Crokes attack.
McKaigue effectively “hammered the hammer” when taking Diarmuid Connolly for four points in the semi-final. So good in the Ulster championship, he took it to a new level in Newry last month and presents an all-round force that Dr Crokes must subdue if they are to bridge that gap to 1992. If Crokes had a bigger presence at inside forward, McKaigue could do a job there but it’s on the 40 where he’s most influential.
Austin Stacks know only too well how good a player Bradley is from their All-Ireland semi-final defeat two years ago and Slaughtneil badly missed him in the final after his injury late on against Stack in Portlaoise. A point-taker and a playmaker, Bradley is a wiry operator with a beautiful range of foot-passes. He’ll find ways and means of feeding Slaughtneil’s inside line if not curbed.
It says plenty about a hurler when he can save his team’s bacon but it says more when he can inspire them to perform to his levels. It’s evident how much inspiration Kelly’s team-mates draw from him. He is their true north as he is their Greenwich Mean Time. Everything is set by him. Cuala will have to do everything to keep him silent but everything might not be enough.
He might not feature for Clare in Sunday week’s final round game against Waterford but the superb club form shown by Deasy has been enough to convince Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor that he has the potential to make a name for himself at inter-county senior level. Should Clare reach the league quarter-finals, he may be given his chance then but there is little to doubt he will be in the shake-up come championship.
A stunning 7-10 in his last four games, O’Callaghan is the hurler Dublin want but football won’t let have. Cuala, though, is another story entirely and his blistering pace is matched by physical strength few defenders will be able to cope with. O’Callaghan’s early rustiness in terms of skill has dissipated the more time he’s been able to focus on his hurling. Kelly can make tomorrow’s final his own but O’Callaghan is capable of the same.
Cuala’s Kerryman will likely be given the duty of sticking to Kelly and O’Connell is the type of selfless player who will sacrifice his own game if it means subduing the best hurler on the field. He has the engine to cope with the frenzied work-rate of Kelly’s and may be able to come up with a point or two himself.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved