Standing on the pitch just moments after Naas had captured a third consecutive Kildare senior football title, Micheál McDermott – the manager of defeated finalists Celbridge – had an idea what was next on the agenda for the victors.
“They will trouble an awful lot of teams in Leinster, because I’d say they will have turned their eye to that now very quickly,” remarked McDermott.
The reality is Naas have been waiting over 12 months for this weekend’s contest to materialise. Saturday (2.15 in Croke Park) will be the third consecutive season Naas and Kilmacud Crokes have met in the Leinster senior club football championship.
The scorecard shows Crokes with two knockout victories – in 2021 the Stillorgan side were 0-14 to 0-7 winners in the provincial final at Croke Park while last November the quarter-final meeting between the clubs at Parnell Park finished 3-14 to 0-14 in Kilmacud’s favour.
Hunger and desire don’t kick balls over the bar, but it’s hard to imagine the Naas players not travelling to Croke Park with gear bags stuffed with such motivational tools this weekend for the 2023 final. But what about Kilmacud Crokes?
It has been a season of many such questions. Does the fire still burn? Is the hunger there? Do they have the desire to go again and again and again?
Crokes, like Naas, are three-in-a-row county champions. But unlike their Kildare counterparts, the Dublin side have progressed all the way to the All-Ireland final in the last two years – losing to Kilcoo in February 2022 and beating Glen in January 2023. It has been a never-ending season, three years and counting.
But nobody in Kilmacud is ready for it to end.
“The fear of failure motivates me, not just in football,” says Crokes captain Shane Cunningham. “Not achieving the things you want to achieve. When you come back, starting every year, you see younger guys coming in and you think, ‘he’s going to be pushing me [for my place].’
“The fear of not starting would push you on. Or the fear of not playing well in a game, of not playing well in front of your friends and family and Robbie.
“It was always a dream of mine to just play with the club at senior level and now that I’m a part of it, even if we are not winning things, I will always give 100 per cent.”
The fallout from last year’s All-Ireland final triumph over Glen was messy and shoved a grey cloud over Kilmacud’s victory. The controversy over the late substitution drama dragged on and at one stage there even appeared to be the possibility of a replay, but ultimately the result remained and Crokes got to keep the Andy Merrigan Cup.
“We had the high and the elation of winning an All-Ireland and then all this noise was coming,” recalls Cunningham. “For the first couple of days, I genuinely found it funny. It was a bit ridiculous, I was laughing and joking.
“It did get a bit tiresome maybe about the third or fourth day.,It was just something that maybe we discussed as a squad on the Wednesday and moved on from it then and kept celebrating. It didn’t take away from it in any shape or form.”
Still, if the motivator for Naas is to finally put one over Crokes, undoubtedly in the privacy of the Kilmacud dressingroom there must be a craving to retain the All-Ireland and clear whatever remnants remain of the grey cloud from January.
However, there were moments throughout the Dublin SFC where Crokes didn’t play with the kind of cohesion we have come to expect from such a well-drilled side. They were certainly lucky to survive a semi-final against Raheny, a last gasp goal forcing extra-time, with Crokes eventually winning after a penalty shoot-out.
“The Dublin championship was very hairy for us,” says Cunningham. “In the group games, against Castleknock we were five or six points down after 10 minutes.
“And Raheny should have beaten us, 100 per cent,” says Cunningham. “The way we performed that day wasn’t good enough. Maybe Raheny was kind of a turning point for us.”
If Shane Walsh and Paul Mannion hit form on Saturday, it is going to take an incredible Naas defensive display to prevent a third loss on the bounce to Crokes. And while Kilmacud have lost some players who have gone travelling this year, the availability of an injury-free Mannion is huge.
“From a pure attacking point of view, he’s pure quality,” adds Cunningham. “But you see him playing for Dublin, he’s always tracking back, I don’t think he gets enough credit.
“There are no airs or graces about him. There’s no, ‘I’m not tracking back here.’ He does the same as every other player.
“Since I came on the team in 2013, Paul has probably been the leader all the way through. He has been our main man. Even with Walshy coming in, he’s probably a similar level to Paul. But Paul, for us, is our man, the person we look up to. He offers us guidance on and off the pitch.”