IN his autobiography, Colm Cooper recalls a speech he made in the dressing room before Dr Crokes played South Kerry in the 2010 Kerry SFC semi-final.
A young Crokes team had reached the 2007 All-Ireland club final, which they lost to Crossmaglen, but they had qualified out of Kerry because South Kerry had beaten them in the 2006 county final. Yet that was a trend which defined South Kerry and Crokes in the latter half of the last decade; the Divisional side also defeated the Killarney club in the 2005 and 2009 finals.
The frustration for Crokes was compounded by a ten-year hiatus without a county title and Cooper articulated it that day in 2010. “Is this team finally going to grow a pair of balls?” asked Cooper. “Because I’m sick and tired at the sight of South Kerry. Are we going to f***ing win this thing for once and for all?”
It wasn’t just Cooper because everyone in the Crokes dressingroom knew the general perception of that team within Kerry football; class footballers but soft. Cooper and Crokes though, had taken enough. They were like a ticking bomb waiting to go off and they blew up in South Kerry’s face that day in 2010, winning by five points. “That victory was career defining for us as a Crokes team,” wrote Cooper.
It certainly was because this decade has belonged to Crokes, who have won six of the eight Kerry titles on offer. They turned four of those titles into Munster club victories, while this team finally reached the pinnacle in March when winning the All-Ireland.
The also showed the edge that day against Slaughtneil, which they had been accused of lacking for so long. In the final six minutes, Crokes (albeit with an extra man) held possession for the entire time. When Slaughtneil committed a foul deep in injury time, the free wasn't taken for 83 seconds due to various delays, including Crokes sending on two subs.
Crokes have continued to prove their worth as a team in the meantime, winning another county title in October, which was even more satisfying considering that they defeated South Kerry in the final.
This group have done it all now, except for scaling one glaringly obvious hurdle – beating Nemo Rangers in a Munster final.
Crokes have beaten Nemo once before – in the 2006 Munster campaign – but when the sides met in the 2010 final (it was played in January 2011), Nemo took Crokes to school in the first half, when they led by 13 points.
Nemo gave an exhibition before Crokes finally cut loose in the second half, and almost miraculously rescued the game. “Our heads went down, fellas didn’t believe,” Crokes manager Harry O’Neill said afterwards of their first half display. It was almost an admission that Crokes had been spooked by Nemo early on.
It wouldn’t have been the first time that happened a team against Nemo. Of the 15 Munster club titles Nemo have secured, many of those finals were won by cricket scores. For some, the opposition would have been defeated before the game even began, but Nemo were mostly in a different class.
The open draw system, unlike at inter-county, is an obvious factor but one of the most striking aspects of Nemo’s Munster dominance is how little they have beaten Kerry teams in finals – just four. As a comparison, Nemo have defeated Clare teams in six finals.
Nemo value every Munster win but it’s no disrespect to other clubs to say that the titles they probably value the most are those won against Kerry clubs, especially the successive finals they won against Austin Stacks in 1974 and 1975.
They were epic contests. Nemo won by a narrow margin in the 1974 decider before the 1975 final produced one of the greatest battles in the competition’s history. After three memorable games, the Cork side edged home with the aid of a late goal from Liam Goode.
That Stacks team, which was teeming with Kerry talent that would go on to dominate inter-county football, finally won Munster and All-Ireland club titles in 1976-77. That Stacks team though, won just won All-Ireland, whereas Nemo won five more over the following two decades.
Of the six Munster titles they won in that time, Nemo never met a Kerry team in the final. Nemo defeated Glenflesk in the 2000 Munster final, even though Crokes were Kerry champions, but the county board decided that year that the winners of the Millenium Cup would represent Kerry in Munster.
“Nemo beat them by four points,” Harry O’Neill recalled before the 2010 final. “Yeah, it still rankles that we didn’t get to play in that Munster championship.”
Yet it rankled with Nemo even more that Crokes had taken them out in 2006. They were out for retribution in 2010 and it showed in the first half when Nemo played some of the best football the club had ever produced. Similar to the Stacks results in 1974-’75, that was surely one of Nemo’s most prized Munster scalps.
What has radically changed in the meantime though, is the status Crokes now command in Munster. Nemo will always be the standard but Crokes have certainly assumed their mantle as the top dogs in this decade. Nemo’s greater era of Munster dominance came in the last decade, with six titles in 11 seasons. Yet a win for Crokes on Sunday would secure them a fifth title in just seven years.
Crokes convincingly beat Cork opposition in the 2011 and 2012 finals (UCC and Castlehaven) but defeating Nemo in the provincial showpiece is the one victory Crokes desperately want. It’s also the one box this group have left to tick.
Crokes are hot favourites to win but, no matter how badly the Kerry champions want to win, Nemo will want it even more.
Because they never like to see anyone threatening their Munster empire.