MUNSTER CLUB SFC QUARTER-FINAL
FOR the first time in eight and a half months this Dr Crokes team experienced what proper, hard-edged championship football is all about. After being given a hard lesson by Crossmaglen Rangers back last February 18 in their 3-8 to 2-8 defeat in the All-Ireland club championship semi-final in Portlaoise Dr Crokes breezed through the summer and autumn to a successful defence of their county title - to use boxing parlance - without having had a glove laid on them.
Just what that says about the contenders in the county championship here is, perhaps, for another day, but as winter arrived last week the first hard questions were asked of this Dr Crokes since the early days of last spring.
Given their utter dominance of the domestic game it should have come as no surprise that they would have to leave the county to be truly tested. That those tough questions were put to the Kerry champions in a coastal hamlet in west Clare might have been a tad more unexpected but ultimately Dr Crokes came up with just enough right answers to escape with a very uncomfortable onepoint win.
Should the Killarney club go all the way in this competition and lift the Andy Merrigan Cup next March they will scarcley forget the Atlantic outpost of Quilty and the doughty footballers of Kilmurry-Ibrickane. After pressing Crokes all the way in last year's provincial semi-final in Killarney, before losing by three points, Kilmurry-Ibrickane were always going to relish bringing the Kerry aristocrats to Quilty for a Munster rematch and this one went the distance, both teams refusing to hit the canvass, before Crokes boxed a little more clever to win on a (one) point decision.
We could continue with the boxing theme here - Crokes two potential knockout goals from Cooper and Looney; Kilmurry-Ibrickane landing point after point in a spirited fourth quarter push after taking a standing count in the third - but that might do a disservice to the quality of the football played.
This was a pulsating contest, and though the canvas on which it was played was wet, heavy and possibly unplayable, the action upon it was at times skilful and slick, often tough and uncompromising and never lacking in honesty and endeavour. This was a match to restore one's faith in football.
Yes, there were errors and unforced turnovers. There was cynicism and gamesmanship. There was massed defences and poor shooting. And both teams were equally culpable. But there was much more. There was some great points kicked and two wonderfully executed goals scored. There was some top class saves made. There was hard hit and great runs, some wonderfully intricate passing and refreshingly direct football. There was brave blocking and gung-ho defending and above all there was a grandstand finish - a rare thing where Dr Crokes are involved.
Kilmurry-Ibrickane's Kerry manager, John Kennedy, had voiced his confidence that his team could win this match and Kennedy's optimism wasn't misplaced. Indeed, on reflection the Clare champions could probably feel they let this one slip away, while Dr Crokes were just happy to slip away with their hardearned one-point win. The Kerry champions can certainly thank their goalkeeper David Moloney for two top-class saves - one a reflex save low to his right post, the other a diving stretch to his top left corner - to deny Kilmurry-Ibrickane the goal they desperately needed.
The home side had taken the aid of a strong wind in the first half and needed to turn that to their advantage if they were going to put Crokes on the back foot early. Instead, the visitors struck a vital blow early on as Colm Cooper got a flick on Daithi Casey's harmless looking 50-metre punt to guide the ball to the Kilmurry-Ibrickane net. It was the type of Dr Crokes opportunism that had sank many a team's ambition in Kerry but Kilmurry-Ibrickane, seemingly, are made of sterner stuff. Despite some wayward shooting and some underhit shots the home side clawed their way back to parity by the 24th minute, thanks in part to some excellent long-range bfree taking by their midfielder Ian McInerney, who finished the game with five converted frees.
Six minutes in David Moloney was alert to Enda Coughlan's low shot to turn it around the post, and five minutes later Peter O'Dwyer blazed over the bar with Moloney's goal at his mercy, as Crokes led somewhat a charmed life during a helter-skelter period.
Some normality was restored in the second quarter as converted frees from McInerney (three) and Johnny Daly were offset by points from Johnny Buckley and Jamie Doolan as Crokes led 1-4 to 0-5 at the break.
Moments after the restart Chris Brady's shot drew a brilliant diving block from Darren Hickey but points from Brady, Doolan and Looney, followed immediately by Looney's sublime strike for goal catapulted Crokes into a 2-7 to 0-5 lead, and the game looked well beyond the home side.
From somewhere, though, they found some resolve and though Looney denied Odran O'Dwyer a goal with a last ditch block little things began to happen for Kennedy's men.
Sub Mark McCarthy pointed; Moloney had to spectacularly tip McCarthy's shot over the bar; corner back raided forward for another score.
In the 61st minute McInerney's fifth converted free had the margin down to the minimum but time ran out for Kilmurry-Ibrickane's gutsy comeback.
For Dr Crokes is was a sobering return to real championship football. DR CROKES: D Moloney, J Payne, M Moloney, F Fitzgerald, S Myers (0-1), E Brosnan, L Quinn, S Doolan, J Buckley (0-1), K O'Leary, D Casey (0-1), B Looney (1-1), C Brady (0-1), C Cooper (1-1, 0-1f), J Dolan (0-2). Subs: A Kennelly for Looney (inj), G O'Shea for Casey. KILMURRY-IBRICKANE: P O'Dwyer, M McMahon, D Hickey, S Hickey (0-1), T O'Connor, P O'Connor, D Callinan, P O'Dwyer (0-1), I McInerney (0-5f), E Talty, M O'Dwyer, N Hickey, E Coughlan (0-1f), N Downes (0-1), J Daly (0-1f). Subs: M McCarthy (0-2) for N Hickey, O O'Dwyer for Talty; S Murrihy (0-1) for Daly, C Donnellan for T O'Connor. REFEREE: Conor Lane (Cork)