THE dark descended, prophetically or otherwise, before this game had even begun.
It was one of those overcast February days. One of those days when it felt as though you could reach out and touch the charcoal grey sky. The PA belted out one hackneyed sports anthem after another. The GAA's not so subtle attempt to generate atmosphere and excitement ahead of what was sure to be an intriguing battle.
"I'm a sailor peg, and I've lost my leg," the Dropkick Murphys sang to the general indifference of those slowly filling the stand in Semple Stadium.
Then a crackle. A voice piped up. He read slowly. The final score in the first semi-final between Crossmaglen Rangers and St Bridget's – 2-7 to 1-9. Cross were out. The low hum of chatter raised a decibel or two. The news that the reigning champs were out was known to many by then, but, perhaps, not all. The frisson of excitement that greeted the news suggested both sets of supporters felt a glorious chance at the ultimate was opening up in front of their very eyes.
The players were now out on the pitch, going through their pre-match routine. If they didn't know before, they knew now precisely what was at stake. For Crokes that illusive All Ireland title must have seemed just that little bit more attainable. Apart from Nemo Rangers, Crossmaglen have proven the only team in the country capable of halting them in the last couple of years. Not Dingle, not Castlehaven, not UCC, not Moorefield, just Cross.
Now they were gone. It should have liberated Dr Crokes. It should have lifted a weight off their shoulders. It should have left them able to go out and play and express themselves like we know they can. It did no such thing. Instead they seemed gripped by fear. The inventiveness, the lightness of touch, the deftness of foot, the pace, the skill we normally associate with the Lewis Road outfit were nowhere to be seen.
Some have suggested hubris as a factor in this defeat. Crokes' focus, the theory goes, was on March 17 and Croke Park. They took Ballymun for granted. It's one possible explanation. It just doesn't stack up in our view. This wasn't a side thinking all it had to do is turn up. This was a side thinking it had too much to lose now. A side that became cautious and safety first. A side that retreated into its shell.
Dr Crokes played their men from behind. They allowed Ballymun dictate the terms of the encounter. They paid the ultimate price and, by the time they realised they had to come out of their crouch position and attack the game with gusto, it was too late.
This was all new ground to Ballymun. They had no hang-ups. They played like they had no hang-ups. They were big and strong and mobile and they were going to make use of that at every available opportunity. Their dominance around the middle is what won this game for them. James McCarthy, Philly McMahon and Alan Hubbard showed a ferocious hunger for battle and ball that few Dr Crokes players seemed capable of matching.
Ambrose O'Donovan came into the game carrying a knock. He was called ashore after just quarter of an hour. Johnny Buckley was crying out for assistance, yet it took another half an hour until Eoin Brosnan was moved alongside him. Once he was, Buckley and Brosnan wrestled control from McCarthy and McMahon. They became the platform for a comeback. The move came too late. The comeback came too late. The story of Crokes' day: a step behind, a second too late.
Against a side of Ballymun's size that was unforgivable. Crokes forwards, in particular, are not big men. They're slight, they're skilful, they use guile to get away from defenders. Standing still and waiting for the ball to come to them just wasn't going to cut it. The lack of movement, the lack of clever support play, was astonishing.
One first half incident stands out. Shane Myers was doing what Shane Myers does. He was carrying the ball out of defence. He looked up, searching for an outlet. He found none. He carried it further, only to be confronted by two marauding Ballymun players. The ball was turned over and Myers was left scrambling on the turf. When have you ever seen that happen Myers before?
And yet for all this Dr Crokes could have taken something out of this game. They didn't deserve to. No way they deserved to. Not with the amount of wides Ballymun kicked.
Crokes were in this game thanks to David Moloney's reflexes in the first half. They were in this game because of Colm Cooper's enduring ability to influence a game. They were in this game because of Daithí Casey's refusal to accept defeat or countenance giving up at any stage.
He was pretty much the only Crokes forward who had sufficient heft to deal with Ballymun. He was pretty much the only Crokes forward who could break the tackle and make ground. It was he who won the penalty that could have put the Kerry champs path back into this game. A big talking point was whether Colm Cooper should have been the one to take that penalty.
He didn't. Chris Brady did. He was the assigned penalty taker. End of story.
That penalty miss is not the reason Crokes lost this game. Crokes lost this game for all the other reasons we've outlined. Did players make mistakes? No doubt. Did the management get certain calls wrong? No doubt.
Can they come back from here to win the All Ireland title they pine for so desperately? Sure they can. St Bridget's victory demonstrated that teams can bounce back from crushing disappointments to overcome the highest of hurdles.
Crokes have shown plenty of indefatigability themselves over the year. The very many defeats to South Kerry. The defeat to Crossmaglen in 2007. The defeat to Nemo in 2010 and the defeat to Cross in Portlaoise this time last year.
What they haven't shown yet is an ability to turn things around when things are going against them. They did some of that against John Kennedy's Kilmurry / Ibrickane. Apart from that they've racked up comfortable win after comfortable win. When was the last time they came from significantly behind to win a significant game? It's not their fault that they're so far ahead of the pack in Kerry and Munster. That doesn't mean it's not a problem for them.
For now all they can do is lick their wounds. They'll know they didn't do themselves justice against Ballymun. They should also know that Ballymun won because, when it came down to it, they were the better side. Wondering and worrying about this or that will get them nowhere. Wondering about whether Philly McMahon deserved a second yellow, wondering whether Colm Cooper should have taken the penalty, wondering whether Ambrose O'Donovan should have started the game, matters not.
It's all over now.