Keys to the footballing Kingdom at stake as Stacks bid to end Dr Crokes’ four-in-a-row bid
Traleee club keen to end a title drought stretching back to 1994
“Stacks are Stacks,” was the succinct compliment offered by Dr Crokes manager Noel O’Leary when asked to consider his team’s opponents in tomorrow’s Kerry senior football championship final.
N’er a truer word: of all the associative words in Kerry football lore, none carries quite as much weight as Stacks, the Tralee club that is towny to the last and boasts more All-Ireland senior football medals than any other club in Ireland and more than several counties.
It is somehow fitting that it was Austin Stacks who have survived to become the last team standing between Dr Crokes, the standard-bearers for the Kerry game for the past half decade, and their quest for what would be a new accomplishment for an old club: a fourth consecutive Kerry football championship.
Stacks are Stacks all right but the club has been trading on an illustrious past for quite some time now. In fact the date of their last Kerry title – 1994 – comes as quite a shock. A lot of Kerry football history has gushed under the bridge since then.
“It is a long time. It is well overdue,” acknowledges John O’Keeffe, whose five county championship medals with Stacks stretch over the period 1973 to 1986.
“It goes in cycles in Kerry. The divisional teams can be very strong when they get it together so it is really good that two clubs teams have come to the ultimate game. We haven’t had a good Stacks team for a while.
“Since Stephen Stack took over I have seen a different Stacks team; they are well prepared and highly motivated and he is highly astute. Mickey Collins is having a fine season and Kieran Donaghy is playing well in the middle of the field and Daniel Bohane is very good at full back. But I feel everything will have to fall into place for Stacks on Sunday.”
This is the problem. Few teams have pushed Dr Crokes as hard as Austin Stacks in recent seasons. They came out the wrong end of 1-15 to 0-11 county final result three years ago and then lost the quarter final to the black and amber team 1-14 to 1-13 the following year.
The grip that Crokes have on Kerry bragging rights is nothing like as oppressive as the stranglehold Crossmaglen have on the Armagh championship – at least not yet.
But Crokes are still in their pomp. Eoin Brosnan is one of the gilded Kerry players who have yet to decide whether or not to commit to another season for the county, but he sounded as if he was enjoying playing club foot ball when interviewed after their semi-final win.
“The five county fellas were training at a very high level. But the others trained very, very hard over the summer. We talked about it at the start of the year. It is a huge challenge for us. Kerry is a huge commitment and we will concentrate on the club for the time being. We will concentrate on the club for the moment. The next few months will hopefully be injury free and we’ll take it from there.”
So while this Kerry final is a tantalising prospect in its own right, it also showcases an interesting period for the Kingdom.
The team has seldom won as many neutral fans in its winning years as it did in its gallant semi-final display against Dublin last summer – even if those garlands mean nothing in Kerry.
There is a sense now that Kerry, despite the admirable momentum generated by first year manager Eamon Fitzmaurice, are fighting against the dying of the light. The recent retirement of Tomás Ó Sé, one of the all-time greats, reinforced that notion.
Tomorrow, big Kieran Donaghy will anchor the midfield for Stacks and Kerry supporters will wonder how many more years he has in that big frame.
Colm Cooper is only 30 and has said he has no intention of quitting but the very fact that Cooper – the kid, the lodestone – is speaking in those terms is sobering. In short, Kerry football is at a crossing point.
Dr Crokes defeated Kerins O’Rahilly’s by 0-14 to 0-4 in their semi-final. Austin Stacks overcame Feale Rangers by 3-12 to 0-3.
“I don’t know was it legs or what it was but they got on top at midfield and they opened us up and pushed on from there,” said O’Rahilly’s defender Aidan O’Mahony, another Kerry ultra who must decide whether or not to carry on with the county.
“Rathmore have some great young players coming through but you have to take your hat off to Crokes, they got the goal and pushed on. They play to a system and when you have Colm Cooper in the team orchestrating, it is very hard to stop them.
“When they get the space, they are very dangerous. They can really pick out a pass and every one of their players are good, left and right. That is what they did to us in the second half.”
But the lopsided nature of both games does not bode well for the welfare of the game in the Kingdom. As can often happen, the standard which Crokes have striven for has disguised the state of the game in general in the county.
“My general opinion is that the standard of football in Kerry was poor overall this summer,” says John O’Keefe, who was recently involved in coaching the Kerry minors with Mickey Ned O’Sullivan.
“It was significant that both clubs won their respective games so easily. Kerins O’Rahilly’s beat a South Kerry team as well in one of the earlier rounds so it doesn’t augur well for Kerry, I would think. Kerry don’t have at the moment stand -out young players who are ready to come into the panel.
“That is why we are trying hard lately at minor and U-21 but we aren’t making the breakthrough. There are no obvious examples of stand-out young players coming through at the moment anyway.”
Perhaps the general excellence that Crokes have striven for has disguised those shortcomings. This is an exceptionally strong period in the club game, with clubs like Crossmaglen and St Brigid’s and Crokes producing teams that have played together for so long that they can sight-read their team-mates.
It is no secret that they are striving for All-Ireland club medals. At their best, they are spellbinding. Even in defeat, they are memorable: anyone who attended the Munster final between Crokes and Nemo Rangers in the frozen winter of 2011 won’t quickly forget the form of Eoin Brosnan as they attempted to recover a 1-13 to 0-3 half -time deficit. Most people watching that day figured that Brosnan could still be playing for Kerry. Then Kerry manager, Jack O’Connor, was at the game and thought so too. A phone call soon followed.
But it isn’t just about Crokes county players: they are laced with quality.
“The way Crokes put it together as a forward line, with Colm Cooper directing, will be difficult to counteract,” O’Keefe says. “He tends to drift out and they are so glad to give him the ball: some of his passing is sublime. But these lads have played together for years and it is the movement of the ball that is the key – Kieran O’Leary and Brian Looney, Daithi Casey: these are all very skilful players just a bit below county standard . . .all of them.
“It is their teamwork more than the individual play that is the key. And if Crokes happen to win four-in-a-row, John Mitchels will be very concerned because they have the record with five-in-a-row.”
The game will be played in Fitzgerald Stadium, the Valhalla of the Kerry game but also the backyard for the Crokes boys. If it is an advantage, then it is not one the Tralee side is concerned with.
“I have no problems: I loved playing in Killarney as a player,” Stacks manager Stephen Stack said on semi-final day when he learned that Crokes would indeed form the opposition. “It is a gorgeous surface and very well maintained and if you couldn’t enjoy playing football in Fitzgerald Stadium you might as well give the game up.”
As it turned out, Killarney was the venue when Stacks won their last title in 1994. It’s like Noel O’Leary said: Stacks are Stacks.
“They won’t be afraid of coming to Killarney. They won’t be afraid of Crokes. So we will just have to watch our backs.”
Should be a good day out.