Eastern Promise: Kerry's derby final set to excite
By Michael Devlin
The potential undoing of Killarney Dr Crokes in Sunday’s Kerry county final could come from one of their own.
They face up to a bristling East Kerry selection in Tralee loaded with talent. There’s the incongruent David Clifford of Fossa, and his brother Paudie, one of the championship’s stand out performers so far.
Another potent attacking force is Glenflesk’s Dara Roche, while Firies’ Jack Sherwood and team captain Dan O'Donoghue of Spa are central figures out the field.
They and many more of the East Kerry contingent would have come under the tutelage of the area’s Games Development Administrator, Dr Crokes man Vince Cooper.
“It’s strange that a Crokes man could be plotting our downfall!” remarks team selector, Niall O’Callaghan. “Vincent has done a huge lot of work with all of those clubs and he’s been outstanding with his work with all East Kerry clubs, and you can see it coming through.
“Most of the East Kerry players and a lot of the Crokes players would have gone through his hands in some shape or form, either in schools or divisional sides. He’s been outstanding.”
It’s just one of many interconnecting lines in this most intriguing of Kerry finals. Walk down Killarney’s main street this week, and everyone’s got a stake in the game.
On one hand there’s Dr Crokes, holders of the Bishop Moynihan Cup and the Kingdom’s most prominent club of the past decade. Then there’s East Kerry, the divisional side of the area’s best junior and intermediate footballers, from which Dr Crokes are also sprung.
Both teams’ players have shared dressing rooms for St Brendan’s Killarney, East Kerry youth teams, and Kerry underage squads. East Kerry’s players would have also competed with their own clubs against Dr Crokes many times in the board’s divisional competition, the O’Donoghue Cup, “a very competitive competition over the years,” says O’Callaghan.
“The craic is ninety. I have a next-door neighbour whose young fella is 14, he’s mad East Kerry and he won’t come inside our door for the week. He’s got flags up and everything, rubbing it into me. That’s what’s nice about it, everybody in the street has a different opinion.”
Chairman of the East Kerry board, Johnny Brosnan, is tentative. “Plenty of hop-balls!” is how he describes the atmosphere in the town as the days wind down towards the game.
“Myself being chairman, I have to speak out of both sides of my mouth really, but of course I’ll be East Kerry on the day, I have to.”
Brosnan is from Currow, home to rugby giants Mick Galwey and Moss Keane. Their Gaelic football roll of honour is not long, but they do have the distinction of being one of the founding clubs of the East Kerry board.
On the 17th of May 1925, Gaelic Football pioneer and Dr Crokes man Dick Fitzgerald became the board’s first chairman, with Currow man Humphrey Murphy taking the position of vice-chair.
Ninety odd years later, Brosnan became the first Currow man to hold the role of chair. “It’s a nice honour, no doubt about that.”
“The East Kerry board, it’s very important. There’re very strong teams in East Kerry. There’s Rathmore and Kilcummin, they won intermediate last year. Then you’ve Legion and Dr Crokes, and some great clubs like Fossa, Firies and Glenflesk with great youngsters coming up.
“The standard is very high, you just have to look around the East Kerry team, and then look at Crokes, who have two All-Irelands. A lot of the fella’s playing on Sunday have All-Ireland medals at minor and U-21.”
The slew of underage success for East Kerry’s teams has fostered a club feel around this current senior team says Brosnan. The board won the last four minor county championships in a row -five in the past seven years - as well the past two U-21 crowns.
“A lot of those fella’s will be playing on Sunday. I would watch them training, and they are very used to playing with each other. They look more like a club team than a divisional team.”
O’Callaghan can attest to the division’s togetherness. “The East Kerry Divisional Board are probably one of the best run boards in the country to be honest. Their competitions are well organised and structured, they’ve a very good, pro-active board.”
East Kerry’s team are composed from six clubs - Spa, Gneeveguilla, Glenflesk, Fossa, Listry and Firies. Last month, Rathmore surprisingly lost their senior championship status for the first time in 20 years, meaning their players - notably county men Paul Murphy and Shane Ryan - will be eligible to line out for East Kerry in 2020.
“They’ll be untouchable,” O’Callaghan playfully admits. “East Kerry will be all the stronger next year, so from a Crokes point of view we have to get the win.
“When you look at both starting 15’s on Sunday, and the starting 15 that played for Kerry in the All-Ireland final, only one senior player started for Kerry. It says a lot about the serious depth of talent in the county.”
O’Callaghan has been involved with Dr Crokes senior teams for the best part of two decades. Serving under Pat O’Shea’s success-laden tenure that yielded an All-Ireland title in 2017, he and Edmund O'Sullivan are aiming to land the club’s fourth successive county title, and their eighth in ten years.
But as the medals have been mounting up, the current Dr. Crokes team are beginning to enter a phase of transition he believes.
“There are a lot of fella’s who’ve been around a long, long time and have seven county medals already. We have a team in Division One and Division Two, so we are trying to progress a lot of young fella’s.”
An All-Ireland Club Final defeat to the irrefutable Corofin back in March brought a realisation of sorts to the Killarney club.
“We got to an All-Ireland Club Final last year and were shown up, so we had to come up with something different, and we’ve been working all year on that. Edmund O’Sullivan has done a great job since taking over.”
The protracted 2018 campaign also had detrimental effect on the team as they rebounded into the current domestic season, which has been their toughest in several years O’Callaghan says.
“Two weeks after Corofin, we had the club championship in Kerry. By the time we got to the club final, we were after playing five weeks in a row after losing an All-Ireland final. Physically we weren’t in great shape, and Austin Stacks won that.
“It was backs to the wall since we lost against Austin Stacks. We had to take a break in the middle of the summer, which doesn’t suit when preparing for a county championship, but we had no choice. We had men out on their legs.
“We had to regroup and re-strategize, and hopefully we’ve got it right, because in Kerry you’re playing every week from the middle of September.
“But we love it. That’s why we train the dirty wet nights, so we can show off our talents on Sunday above in Tralee, and let people see what we can do.”
It’s a lifestyle that has brought with it a winner’s mentality. Some may call label it as mild arrogance, other’s as assured confidence, but nonetheless, O’Callaghan admits that Crokes' dominance in recent years has put them on a pedestal to be got at by those vying to usurp them as the kings of Kerry.
“That’s there all the time. We were going for five in a row a couple of years ago, and we went for two years without, then Pat came back in and we won the last three. You’re there to be shot at and we understand that, we don’t mind the pressure of it and most of the time, we thrive on it.
“We had a couple of situations in the championship this year where our season was on the line. Extra time against South Kerry, with four minutes to go we were four points down. We went down the field and got a point and a goal when we needed it and got a draw.
“In the replay then we played much better. Against Kenmare we had tough tests. We look forward to that, we enjoy it, and we know when the game gets into the nitty-gritty, we have the players that can get us out of it.
“We’ve very, very strong-minded teams in our group, who really, really push it - the Johnny Buckley's, the Kieran O’Leary’s, Daithi Casey, Brian Looney. Those guys are winners and it’ very easy when you are in a management group when a group of players who are so hungry.”
Austin Stack Park on Sunday afternoon will be a feast for the footballing purist. The quality of both teams looks set to serve up a grand contest.
“It’ll be an absolutely cracking match for the neutrals, because it will be two teams going 15 on 15,” predicts O’Callaghan. “No sweepers, no defensive stuff, just straight out football.
“Seeing David Clifford in full flight, the East Kerry people will be coming out in their throngs, and for the Crokes people, we’ll be delighted to see Tony Brosnan in full flight.”
Last year Brosnan finished one of the top scorers in the county championship, and he leads the charts this year. Despite a fleeting stint on the Kerry senior panel three years ago, Brosnan went off the inter-county radar, but has since installed himself as heir apparent to Colm Cooper in the Dr Crokes full forward line.
His performances in recent years have warranted deserved praise, and calls for another opportunity in the green and gold jersey.
“He’s our go-to man and we’re delighted with him, he’s having a great season, like the two seasons before. From Tony’s point of view, we’d be disappointed that he hasn’t been in with Kerry.
“We are happy with the way he’s been playing, it’s phenomenal. People in Kerry say, ‘Can you imagine a forward line with Tony Brosnan and David Clifford inside there?”
On East Kerry’s side, David Clifford’s brilliance is well documented, but he is suitably backed up by brother Paudie and Dara Roche.
“Dara Roche would start on any county team other than Kerry,” says O’Callaghan. “Paudie Clifford’s form is phenomenal, and his battle with Gavin White the next day is to me the key battle of the whole thing. Both have balance and pace, both are left-legged, that’ll be a key battle.”
It's 20 years meanwhile since East Kerry last won the Kerry championship, or indeed featured in the final. On the eve of the millennium, they completed a three-in-a-row with a one point win over Feale Rangers, led by Kerry legends Seamus Moynihan and Johnny Crowley.
"Can you believe it has been 20 years?" says Johnny Brosnan. "It is a long time for an area like this. They were great years, and they were a great team. The team we have now could be better."
The East Kerry chairman is still speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
“If Crokes do win it though, we’ll be firmly behind them for Munster. At the end of the day, each one of the Crokes team are East Kerry men as well, so I hope they do well.”