Shane Cunningham says agonising final defeat in 2022 is a huge spur for Kilmacud

Shane Cunningham of Kilmacud Crokes, Dublin, pictured ahead of the AIB GAA All-Ireland Football Senior Club Championship Final against Watty Graham's, Glen on Sunday at Croke Park Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile *** NO REPRODUCTION FEE ***.
Paul Keane

A FEW days after last February's AIB All-Ireland club final defeat, Kilmacud Crokes manager Robbie Brennan installed a picture of Kilcoo lifting the cup as his phone's screensaver, for motivation.

That image of Conor Laverty and Aidan Branagan with their hands on the Andy Merrigan Cup would stare back at him, torturing him, every time he reached for the phone.

Team captain Shane Cunningham admitted that, for him, any sense of motivation to atone for that painful loss to the Down side, who won with a late, late Jerome Johnston goal, didn't kick in until a couple of months after.

"That loss, when it powered us or gave us the motivation was maybe in April or May, when we had to dust off the cobwebs and get back training again," said the experienced forward.

"Definitely then, there was the motivation to rectify it. Since we've got back into championship football, you are taking it game by game. I don't think the outcome of last February is going to dictate this game at all."

Cunningham admits he didn't need a screensaver or any embedded pictures to remind him what happened on that day against Kilcoo - he still has an instant recall of Johnston's 81st minute goal.

Goalkeeper Conor Ferris probably had nightmares afterwards about darting out of his goals towards the right touchline and hoofing the ball up the field, allowing Kilcoo to win possession and conjure the goal.

"The learnings of that (goal conceded) were among the things that we would have worked on throughout the year," said Cunningham.

"We did work on it, as such, but we would have parked it then as well.

"We drew a line in the sand. Once we'd worked on it, we trained ourselves in training games and in matches to try to get ourselves out of those situations. But we wouldn't be watching it back over or referencing it at all, to be honest.

"It would have been something that we touched on. Learnings were taken from it, we would have trained on them, and we do try to execute them at certain times in games if the situation comes along."

Returning to the final 11 months on is mightily impressive though Crokes may see it as a bad omen that, again, northern opposition awaits them in the shape of Glen.

Asked if he felt Crokes would have made it back to Sunday's final if they'd beaten Kilcoo last year, Cunningham shrugged.

"I would say, yeah," he concluded after a pause. "But obviously I've nothing really to back that up with. I'm just saying that based on the characters on the team and I know the lads are very motivated regardless of what they win."

Croke's have looked even better this season than on their journey to the final against Kilcoo. In their 10 games since the start of the Dublin championship, they have conceded an average of just nine points. On the credit, or scoring side, of the ledger, they have averaged 16.9 points per game.

That ultra efficiency is despite being without three-time Allstar forward Paul Mannion since the county quarter-final in September. He required surgery on an ankle injury and still hasn't returned to action.

"He's running out of time is the honest answer," said Cunningham on whether Mannion might feature on Sunday.

"We're doing absolutely everything we can to get him fit and he'll be given up to the last minute to prove his fitness. If he can play, even if he can play a small part, we'd be delighted but he's running out of time at the minute."

Mannion's absence - he also missed last year's All-Ireland series through a separate knee injury - has been tempered by the mid-season arrival of Allstar Galway forward Shane Walsh. He has since played in eight championship games for Croke's and registered 0-36, setting up so much more. Given the controversy around his transfer, Cunningham admits neutrals outside Dublin probably won't give the club any credit if they win the All-Ireland.

"I'd say probably no, absolutely not," he said. "But does that bother me? No, absolutely not. I just care about winning and maybe what your close family and friends think about it is what motivates me and if anyone else has a view on it, they're entitled to it and it doesn't affect me."