There are times watching Dr Crokes turn talent from the programme page to the pitch that makes one wonders how they ever lose a game.
They do, though. And like a tabloid celebrity expose, they frequently get played out and dissected in the full glare of a national audience. Three All-Ireland club semi-finals in a row from 2012 they came up short against Crossmaglen, Ballymun, and Castlebar, and while the latter may be remembered for the dreadful knee injury suffered by Colm Cooper, there is a good reason they lost all three. They didn’t produce when it mattered most.
Harsh? Not really, accepts forward and captain Dáithí Casey.
“The club is waiting since 1992 for that second All-Ireland, and the reality is we didn’t perform in those three semis. That’s unfortunately what let us down. In the past, we were playing a lovely brand of football, but were we going the extra mile? I don’t know. This season every fella has tuned in, and it’s not about individual brilliance. It’s more numbers 1-20.
“Before, individual moments would have won games for us. Now the backs are very solid, and up top, every fella has chipped in.”
Casey has good reason to roll his eyes when the inevitable ‘Crokes-don’t-like-it-up-’em’ issue is prosecuted. He’s heard it for a decade, as though four Kerry county championships in succession from 2010 were won against marshmallows. But with a decade’s senior experience behind him, he discerns a harder mental edge to his colleagues this season.
“Those (semi-final) losses were tough, but going into this All-Ireland final now, it has turned into a positive. Those experiences stand to you, we haven’t gone into any game getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe we had done that before. We went in with a strong favourite tag in previous years but this time Corofin were really being talked up before the semi-final.”
Maybe it’s just that towny footballers are supposed to be lighter and cuter than their country brethren, but Casey’s underage years present a recurring theme of size and scale. In fact, Crokes are an ideal case study for many of football’s key debates: Style v substance, football v athleticism, nurture v nature, power v panache.
“We’ve always been considered small as a team. Even watching underage games now, Crokes always appear to be the smaller, skillful fellas. Maybe our mothers aren’t feeding us! It’s been said for a long time that we can be knocked out of our stride but I don’t think any team will bully Crokes out of it. I personally never feared we’d lose a game because we would be muscled out of it. Once the Crokes are hungry, we won’t be bullied out of it. If fellas are tuned in and ready to go, there are not going to be many teams, no matter how big they think they are, who will be bullying us.”
And that’s the key bit. ‘Once the Crokes are hungry…’ — they are.
Club chairman Denis Coleman had the club’s sense of identity in his mind when he approached Pat O’Shea to take control of the senior team last year. The club dabbled with outside management after those three All-Ireland semi-final losses, bringing in now-Cork manager Peadar Healy.
Last year O’Shea, a greater influence on the club’s DNA than anyone in terms of what goes on on the pitch, went black-and-amber down through his management ticket. Harry O’Neill, Mike Buckey, Niall O’Callaghan, and Eddie ‘Tatler’ O’Sullivan is about as Crokes as it gets. And the players got the message.
“The big thing here is that the club has always looked for footballers. The emphasis of the club is to play.” says Casey. “You see how defensive it has gone, but we are still trying to keep it free-flowing. We are not stupid and we understand our defensive responsibilities but at the same time, attack is genuinely our best form of defence.”
The debate is understandably framed by those boys of 1992, the All-Ireland winners who were able to deal the physique of John Galvin, Sean Clarke, Mike Buckley, and Noel O’Leary at robust challengers but Daithi Casey throws any of the Crokes defence or midfield down on that card.
“A lot of folk seem to think our forwards are flighty, but as we are getting older, we are actually getting more stubborn. When we were younger, yes, we were all about the ball, now we are able to mix it more. I’d like to think so.”
It’s ironic that Casey mentions Barcelona — more than a club — is making his point because, in Kerry football terms, Dr Crokes is a brand in itself. It’s glib and easy to identify Colm Cooper with the club because he’s a bade of pride but there’s been lines of quality forwards and creators before him of every shape and skillset.
One of them, O’Shea, is also one of the best creative coaches in the GAA. There’s nature and nurture at work here. O’Shea oversees the club’s nursery programme on Saturday mornings, right down to the under-sixes.
“We have a lot of very good forwards who know when to make the right run, but Pat has zoned in on that this season,” says Casey.
“Maybe over the last few years, we were almost predictable in our play. We just wanted to get it and move it, whereas now maybe we think a bit more about the game and manage the ball a bit better at times. On occasions, we were desperate to break quickly and get it to the full-forward but now there’s a bit more method because teams are setting up very differently — they could have packed defences, sweepers. As we mature, we realise sometimes it’s more important to play it around, retain it.”
There’s an admission of nature, too: “But when you are in the middle of it, it doesn’t seem we are doing anything different than we’ve been doing since we were young fellas.”
Winning a lot of titles and admirers while they’ve been enjoying themselves has had other positive spin-offs for the Killarney club too.
“We are trying very hard not to lose any players at any grade and success helps. I’ve really only copped that these last few years. The club tries to bring everyone through from minor and under-21, it doesn’t matter whether it’s to the senior team or the juniors,” says Casey.
“There was a while there when the 18-20-year-olds were being lost, were drifting out of the club. A lot of my age group would have dropped off the scene in the few years after 2008 but are now back playing junior or with the C team for a bit of fun. That’s down to the fact that the club was doing well and it’s good to be involved with.”
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