Ballymun defence delivers
BALLYMUN K’S 1-10 DR CROKES 0-9
Near the end of the first half a snapshot presented itself of how this showdown had taken shape and how it was likely to develop further.
Dr Crokes were in patient mode trying to break down a Ballymun defence that had been oblivious to goals for the last six matches of this campaign.
From one side of the field to the other, Crokes prodded and probed for an opening. Ballymun defenders simply stood their ground and marked their space.
Eventually the ball was threaded into Colm Cooper's path. That was the cue for something different from Ballymun. In the split second that the great man had control and positioned himself for his next move, he was halted and ruthlessly frisked.
Four opponents converged on him instantly, thieving his space and prompting referee Marty Duffy to blow for over-carrying. Ballymun were 1-4 to 0-3 ahead at that stage and, given the parsimony of their defensive effort, a four-point lead was a priceless commodity for a team that had conceded just 20 in their three previous provincial club championship games.
It was one of those private moments of doubt that can tell a team that it's not going to be their day and it rang loud in the ears of the Crokes' players.
"We did everything we thought right – but fair play to Ballymun, they were better on the day," said Crokes manager Noel O'Leary.
"We just didn't play, we didn't get the rub of the green, things went against us. Bad passing, bad ideas... it was just a horror show."
How had a team that had looked so majestic in their provincial final in December, that appeared hell-bent on pushing on into March after defeat to Crossmaglen 12 months earlier, turned up so ragged in Thurles for this clash?
Ballymun's defence was, of course, a primary reason, as was the athleticism in their ranks and ability to break at pace – especially through James McCarthy and the superb Alan Hubbard from right-half-back.
But you had to wonder about Crokes' mindset, too. Had news filtered through to their dressing-room beforehand that the kings had been slain in Mullingar?
If it had, what impact did it have? These things are difficult to guard against no matter how you try to insulate against it and tell yourself that it makes no difference. Of course it does.
The conventional thinking was Crossmaglen and Crokes would meet on St Patrick's Day in a showpiece final, but shortly after 5.15 on Saturday, that script was out the window.
Remember how Tyrone and Armagh, the top two teams in the country at the time, fell on the same afternoon in August 2004 to Mayo and Fermanagh in All-Ireland quarter-finals? O'Leary was adamant afterwards that the Cross result hadn't permeated through the dressing-room. But how do you contain news like that?
"Now the two of us will be sitting around watching it (the final). We can go to the parade!" figured O'Leary, summoning a little gallows humour on another bad day for Kerry football.
This had the potential to be a cloud with a silver lining in the Kingdom, a beacon of hope after two terrible weekends for the county team. But instead they were left perplexed by a really organised, athletic and defensively orientated opposition. Sound familiar?
Ballymun sprung a surprise by naming Philly McMahon at midfield alongside McCarthy to accommodate the returning Dublin panelist Sean George, who had played his way back into contention. It was a move that was to have a profound effect in establishing a Ballymun lead that stretched to six points at one stage.
McMahon scored a point, set up a 15th-minute goal for Ted Furman and delivered other telling passes as they dominated the first half. "In ways my hand was forced on that one because Sean George has been very patient and I mean he's a quality player; this fella will play with the county this year, I'm sure," manager Paul Curran said.
"He didn't really get much game time in the Leinster championship (he had been suspended for two months) because the team were winning and we just didn't want to change this.
"But we've had a break and he's been outstanding in training, so with him going in at full-back, it meant we needed to have a look at another place for Philly. And we know he can play out the field – he wants to play out the field. He wants a little bit more freedom."
McMahon was lucky to stay on the field, picking up a yellow card on 36 minutes and then committing two more blatant fouls, one for the penalty two minutes later, which Sean Currie saved from Chris Brady and which Curran felt was a "game changer."
O'Leary noted that foul on Daithi Casey and had stiff words for the general performance of referee Duffy.
"Did he (McMahon) duck out the field? He must have. The referee didn't see him.
"No fella wants to see a player sent off, but ref it properly anyway. If you're going to ref it, ref it clear. He saw it, I didn't see it."
Furman's goal had given Ballymun a 1-4 to 0-4 lead, the final point of the half from Crokes providing rare moments of genius from Kieran O'Leary in the provision and Cooper in the finish. However, Cooper did suffer from the general malaise, the game's most economic player failing to hit the target with at least four passes.
At the other end, Eoin Brosnan always looked under pressure in trying to stem the flow of pace and energy in his domain. Thus, his influence pressing forward was lessened as a consequence.
Crokes required a goal-line save by John Payne from McMahon on 35 minutes to stay in touch, but couldn't capitalise when Brady's penalty was saved.
O'Leary defended the decision to delegate Brady for the kick. "He takes every other penalty. Why not? It was low and hard."
O'Leary confirmed he would be available to stay on as manager and vowed that Crokes would rally. "How long did it take them to win a county championship? It took them three or four years before they beat South Kerry. This is going to be the same thing."
Curran was delighted with another supreme defensive effort, but suggested there was no great science to it. "Our defenders are good. It's not any mad system that we work on or anything, it's just they're good defenders and they're fit and they get out in front of their man and they win a lot of ball that comes in."
And they seem to be doing it so much better than everybody else right now.
Scorers – Ballymun Kickhams: D Rock 0-5 (3f), T Furman 1-1, P McMahon, Davy Byrne, J Whelan, Derek Byrne 0-1 each. Dr Crokes: D Casey 0-3 (1f), C Cooper 0-2, C Brady, J Doolan, J Buckley, F Fitzgerald all 0-1 each.
Ballymun Kickhams – S Currie; Eoin Dolan, S George, Enda Dolan; A Hubbard, K Connolly, J Burke; J McCarthy, P McMahon; D Byrne, K Leahy, J Whelan; C Weir, D Rock, T Furman. Subs: E Reilly for Weir (45), Derek Byrne for Leahy (54), S Forde for Connolly (55), A O'Brien for Furman (61).
Dr Crokes – D Moloney; J Payne, M Moloney, F Fitzgerald; L Quinn, E Brosnan, S Myers; A O'Donovan, J Buckley; K O'Leary, D Casey, B Looney; C Brady, C Cooper, J Doolan. Subs: S Doolan for O'Donovan (18), D O'Leary for Myers (43), K Ward for Quinn (44), G O'Shea for C Brady (55).
Ref – Marty Duffy (Sligo)