Kilmacud Crokes 0-14 Naas 0-7
Seasons change, and for Kilmacud Crokes the winning of the first provincial club football title since pre-pandemic times was in part motivated by their last Leinster final appearance, just over three years ago, when they lost to Longford’s rank outsiders Mullinalaghta.
It may bring some redemption too - the Dublin champions slowly and then surely imposing their class and absolute superiority on a calm winter evening at Croke Park, beating first-time finalists Naas by double scores to claim their fifth title in all.
“I don’t know, I thought it might once the whistle went,” mused manager Robbie Brennan, reflecting on that loss, “but that was a fair shock to the system, albeit a deserved win for Mullinalaghta, but this one is special, in its own way.”
Motivations change too, and for Crokes the loss beforehand of star marksman Paul Mannion - who underwent minor knee surgery on Friday, likely to end his club season for the time being - meant a certain change of tack and tactic, in part at least to prove they could win without him.
“Yeah, that last time against Thomas Davis that he went off injured, we didn’t win,” said Brennan. “There probably was an argument that we can’t win without Paul, and we were probably looking at that ourselves, and saying ‘let’s see can we?’
“It’s funny, minus Paul, maybe expectation levels are lowered a bit for us, which is a bit of a catch 22-type thing. This was a big test, we won this one, and it mightn’t be the same the next day, but thankfully we came out the right side.”
In truth, the greater absence may have been felt by Naas, forward Darragh Kirwan, crucial to their wins so far and especially the semi-final, also unable to start, one of three changes in all - the same number as Crokes. Despite a spirited front-ended challenge by the Kildare champions, they fell off dramatically in the second half, unable to build at all on the seven points scored in the first half-hour. No faulting their effort, tough nine wides and several other skewed shots didn’t help their cause.
In direct contrast, several Crokes players rose up to help fill the absence of Mannion, Tom Fox producing five excellent scores, including two frees, Dara Mullin adding three, and Callum Pearson chipping in with two.
Fox clearly impressed his manager: “Amazing, a lot of pressure coming in on Tom, for a few reasons outside of the game, so delighted for him,” said Brennan. “He’s a class act, a character too.
Pressing hard on the Naas kick-outs in the second half, Crokes outscored their opponents 0-6 to nothing, and with Rory O’Carroll lording their defence, Crokes shut up all avenues for Naas as the game progressed too: “We got a high squeeze up the pitch, tracking runners a little more. Rory (O’Carroll) is just unreal, his wife was due yesterday I think, and I knew he missed a couple of years out, but to me he looked as fresh as a daisy, right at home out there in Croke Park.”
The first Leinster club football final to be played at Croke Park since 1978, the first half was lively and entertaining, only for Naas, who had celebrated their Christmas after the bonus of a first county title in 31 years, the endgame will perhaps leave some regret. Captain Eamon Callaghan did hit four frees, though dropped one short early in the second half and that seemed to set the mood from then on.
Earlier, Callaghan’s frees first drew Naas level, then put them a point up, 0-5 to 0-4, after 20 minutes. Callaghan’s fourth free brought it back to the minimum, 0-8 to 0-7, both teams believing their best was yet to come. Instead only Crokes delivered on that, a free from Fox turning the momentum again, Craig Dias getting in on the scoring act too.
With the Connacht champions up next on January 29th/30th, Mannion’s absence is almost sure to continue: the six-time All-Ireland winner, retired for now from Dublin, sustained the injury in the semi-final win over Portarlington before Christmas.
“We gave him every opportunity to try and get here,” said Brennan. “Paul wanted to do that himself but just ran out of time unfortunately so he just didn’t make it.
“He was trying, to be fair to him, God he’s some man, he was trying every little bit he could. They decided no, he’d need to get a little minor op done, on it so he’s managed to get that done and out of the way now. He only had it done yesterday (Friday) so I don’t know. We just have to wait and see what the timescale is.”
Kilmacud Crokes (Dublin): C Ferris (0-1, free); M Mullin, R McGowan, A McGowan; D O'Brien (0-1), R O'Carroll, C O'Shea; C Dias (0-1), C Casey; T Fox (0-5, two frees), C Pearson (0-2), A Jones (0-1); H Kenny, S Cunningham (capt), D Mullin (0-3).
Subs: S Horan for Kenny (half-time), C Kinsella for Pearson (48 mins), A Quinn for Cunningham (55 mins), D Jones for Fox (57 mins), J Murphy for Dias (63 mins).
Naas (Kildare): J Rodgers; B Kane, P Sullivan, C Joyce; T Browne, B Byrne, P McDermott (0-1); E Doyle, J Clearly; S Cullen, E Callaghan (capt) (0-4, all frees), L Griffin; D Hanafin (0-2), J Burke, C Daly.
Subs: C McCarthy for Joyce (47 mins), A McDermott for Kane (53 mins), J McKevitt for Cullen (54 mins), S Bergin for Griffin (55 mins), D Gahin for Cleary (60 mins).
Referee: Patrick Maguire (Longford)