All the drama, thrills and excitement were packed into the second half of this magnificent Munster Club Football Final at the Limerick Gaelic Grounds last Sunday. At the end of an enthralling battle played in perfect weather conditions the experience, composure and point kicking ability of the reigning champions, Dr Crokes, under the most utmost pressure saw them deservedly retain the Michael O'Connor trophy. (Michael was one of the most dedicated members of Dr Crokes club, and a man I'd huge respect for).
But what a fright they got from this magnificent Cratloe side that rose to the challenge in superb style. Not many teams in Kerry or Munster during the last four years have pushed Crokes so close to defeat as this gallant Clare side did. If trophies were distributed on the basis of desire, dedication, commitment and the steadfast pursuit of victory then Cratloe would be celebrating this Christmas. But sport can be cruel and not like this. Trophies are won on merit and it was Dr Crokes ice-cool finish that saw them avoid a sensational defeat.
The Killarney men had turned in a scintillating first half displaying all that is best in their locker of class, movement and skill. Yes, the losers did show glimpses of what they were capable of as they raced into an early two-point lead after just a few minutes but then the champions found their rhythm.
Colm Cooper at full forward was at his domineering best turning and teasing the Clare defenders time after time. He slipped over three lovely points.
Johnny Buckley and captain Ambrose O'Donovan were dominating midfield and their team mates were picking up a load of breaks, a crucial area of the game that Crokes are masters at.
Cratloe were, to paraphrase that great boxing term, reeling on the ropes and by the time the short whistle sounded they trailed 0-10 to 0-3. But in many ways Crokes had let them slightly off the hook as they kicked a series of very bad wides and they really should have had the game done and dusted.
Very few outside the Clare camp gave theie team any hope of turning the proverbial tables as they raced out for the second half. However, what we witnessed for the next 32 minutes was as great a display by a Clare football club team as I have ever seen. And I can go right back to 1968 when I played with a star-studded East Kerry team against a great Doonbeg side in this very same Munster Club Championship. We just about survived in Doonbeg, salvaging a draw, and a week later in early April a home venue in Killarney saw us advance. So the Clare fighting spirit in this wonderful competition is nothing new.
The second half was as if you flicked a switched. Crokes dropped their intensity and Cratloe, powered by their eight superbly fit Clare hurlers, simply owned the ball. They came forward in wave after wave of attack. Unbelievable they outscored the winners in this period 0-9 to 0-1. It was sensational stuff as the Clare side displayed great skill, ball retention and point kicking.
Podge Collins, Connor McGrath and Fergal Lynch in particular were unbelievable in all aspects of the game and raised white flags from seemingly impossible positions. The Killarney men were simply played off the field. And remember Crokes very high fitness levels have been a huge part of their continued success.
Watching this marvellous Cratloe effort backbone by eight hurlers it is easy to understand why Clare are senior and Under-21 All-Ireland hurling champions. These men are a breed apart.
Nevertheless when push came to shove in those pulsating closing minutes it was the Kerry side that held their nerve best of all. Four minutes of normal time left on the clock and Cratloe led 0-12 to 0-11. Crokes were down to fourteen men as Colm Cooper had received a second yellow card for a rash challenge on Conor McGrath minutes before.
Daithi Casey held his nerve to point a difficult enough free. Level.
Cratloe won the kick out and drove forward, the Croke defence cleared the danger and then we saw their years of experience and composure honed to the finest detail come to the fore as the clock ticked down. A series of measured, precise and unhurried passes saw Ambrose O'Donovan set up the outstanding Johnny Buckley who drove the ball unerringly between the posts for the winning point.
I have watched and studied the Killarney men for many years and one of their greatest assets under the most trying circumstances is their wonderful composure when the fat is really in the fire. And this very same trait is what gave them their third Munster title on the trot. A remarkable achievement by a club that has to be greatly admired for their utmost professionalism and organisational skills on and off the field.
What happens next is a subject for another day. The bar gets higher and higher. But when memories dim and other battles occupy the mind, the superb fitness of Cratloe, their undying spirit and their majestic second half display in their unwavering pursuit of glory against this great Kerry side will always be etched in my memory. It was great stuff.
Sixty years ago this year, 1953, Kerry won their jubilee All-Ireland senior football championship. It was a momentous year in the history of the county and one of the most celebrated wins up until then. It had been a long wait for supporters since 1946 when the Sam Maguire had come to the county. Now eight years later Armagh had been defeated in a final that has gone down in history in particular for a missed penalty by the northern team. To commemorate that momentous year I will present a special Radio Kerry two hour special program next Monday in which we will speak to players, supporter and others involved all those years ago. Jas Murphy of Kerins O'Rahillys was the winning captain and huge controversy surrounded the omission of Paudie Sheehy who had been the appointed captain up until the final. A programme certainly not to be missed.