Enda McGinley: All-Ireland club football final will be one for the purists
A DREAM final, potentially Gaelic football at its very finest. The All-Ireland Club SFC final between Dr Croke’s of Kerry and Corofin of Galway appears to be being built into something other-worldly and something it can’t possibly live up to. Or could it?
The All-Ireland champions of 2018 against those of 2017. A top gun battle of club football to determine who is the ‘best of the best’.
Dr Croke’s, when in full flow, play some of the most attractive football of any team in the country and across any period. High-quality natural footballers playing with pace and movement and with an ability to conjure and exploit space on a pitch that just doesn’t seem to be there for other teams.
When they go on their trademark scoring sprees, short barrages where they can inflict fatal damage on opponents, their football is often marked by its simplicity.
Simple football like this, however, is awesome. In modern football there is often a tendency to over-complicate things.
Albert Einstein had it that if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it well enough.
Well, in terms of football, if you can’t play it simply, then maybe you can’t play it well enough.
Dr Croke’s can and they do. In Gavin White they have the ultimate road runner, haring out of defence, moving faster with the ball than without, yet nearly always able to make the right final play from his possession.
In Tony Brosnan, Kieran O’Leary and David Shaw they have forwards at the very top of their game.
All are inter-county standard, but all still playing with the added freedom and joy that club football seems able to reveal when compared to the county game.
A club forward line where Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper is resigned to a super-sub role says it all.
That said, Dr Croke’s star forward line comes up against probably an even better one in Corofin’s. In last year’s All-Ireland final win, Corofin ran up the highest ever score in a club final. It wasn’t just their total, however, but the sheer quality of their inter-play and movement and skill that mesmerised anyone who saw it.
If you couldn’t appreciate the brilliance of what they did and how they did it, you are not a fan of football or, for that matter, any sport.
They appeared to have spent as much time practising their telepathy as they did their shooting. Their scoring returns were off the charts, while their fluid total football was like something out of the Matrix.
Gary Sice, Ian Burke, the Farraghers and Michael Lundy are as good as anything Dr Croke’s have.
Their forward play was so good that it was rolled out like a star witness against the proposed restriction of handpasses.
The bottom line is both teams have forward lines and attacking play that would rival and better most county teams.
This year, both teams only really got into their stride in their provincial campaigns – a pointer to the fact that, given their strengths, their own inter-county competitions can be won without reaching top gear.
Not unlike Crossmaglen in their pomp, both teams now view Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day as somewhere they expect to be, rather than a mere dream like the rest of us mere mortals. They time their season accordingly.
Both teams were strong favourites going into their semi-finals against Gaoth Dobhair and Mullinalaghta and, while each struggled for long periods, they both eventually made their quality count.
The winter break in the club series is notoriously difficult to negotiate and, even for teams well used to it, the semi-finals are rarely the place we see their best football.
With both teams at full strength thanks to the rescinding of Johnny Buckley’s red card, they will be primed for massive final performances.
Buckley’s red card in the semi-final was for an off-the-ball incident which raises an interesting and slightly different note, however.
While Dr Croke’s, do play some of the most aesthetically pleasing football you could ever hope to see, they also carry a hard edge.
This can be traced back to when Dr Croke’s were on the path to being viewed as serial losers of sorts.
They lost the All-Ireland club final to Crossmaglen in 2007 and then lost three semi-finals on the bounce before eventually making the breakthrough in the 2017 final against Slaughtneil.
In the end it was not fancy football that got them over that highest of lines. Instead, that final was a dour battle, where Croke’s, against a 14-man Slaughtneil side, ground out the victory more through force of will and grit than footballing ability.
The previous run of defeats, near misses and hard luck stories developed a harder, meaner edge.
That Slaughtneil final was billed as the gifted talented footballers against the dogged northern boys. Yet Croke’s fouled Slaughtneil 28 times to 11 and, in particular, targeted Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers repeatedly as they were the primary launchpads for attacks in the Derry men’s semi-final win over Na Fianna.
Like all Kerry teams then, Dr Croke’s can definitely play ball – but they aren’t unfamiliar with the darker and lesser acknowledged aspects of the game.
The issue the Kerry men will face with Corofin is that, somewhat like Dublin, the Galway champions’ attacking threats are far too numerous to shut down.
In their Connacht final victory over Ballintubber, Corofin had nine different scorers, while nine different players also gave the primary assist for a score.
Ian Burke could be thought of as their Ciaran Kilkenny and undoubtedly will come in for special attention, but I don’t expect them to be shut down completely. In saying this, when the two teams last played off in the 2017 semi-final, Croke’s won by over double scores, 2-11 to 0-8.
Of course, that was them in full-on mission mode having lost their previous three semi-finals. Since that heavy loss, however, Corofin have gone on to find their own bewildering mojo and claim the 2018 title.
The manner of that has earned them rave reviews and was in contrast to the Croke’s 2017 victory, which was seen as a team falling over the line after numerous attempts.
This year, however, the Munster kingpins have gained plenty of headlines as they blitzed through the early rounds of their provincial championship, scoring 6-41 in two games with a style of play right up there with anything Corofin have produced.
In terms of ingredients, this final couldn’t be any more mouth-watering.
Corofin have appeared in the St Patrick’s Day showcase three times and had things completely sewn up well before the end on all three occasions.
This one will not be as easy. Both teams are capable of spell-binding football and both teams will feel very comfortable on this, the biggest of club stages.
Rarely at this level do great rivalries like this emerge as it is so difficult for two clubs to get back to the same level. For the two teams involved, there is era-defining greatness at stake.
For the rest of us, however, we should just sit back and enjoy.
If, and it’s a big if, this final lives up to the billing, we could all be in for an absolute classic on Sunday. Let the two teams at it. Let the rest of us enjoy.