Castlebar will be hopeful and concerned

Conor Ryan, Cratloe, in action against Eoin Brosnan, Dr. Crokes in the AIB Munster Club Senior Football Championship Final at the Gaelic Ground
Conor Ryan, Cratloe, in action against Eoin Brosnan, Dr. Crokes in the AIB Munster Club Senior Football Championship Final at the Gaelic Ground

What is it about Clare opposition that causes this Dr Crokes team such trouble? For the third year running the Clare football champions have pressed their Kerry counterparts tight up against the glass and left them feeling more than a little unsure about themselves.

In 2011 Kilmurry-Ibrickane came to Lewis Road and gave Dr Crokes an almighty test before a little indiscipline cost them a place in the provicial final.

Twelve months later Kilmurry-Ibrickane almost brought Dr Crokes to their knees in the mud of Quilty, going down by a single point after a super second half effort.

And last Sunday Cratloe - much more a hurling club than a football one - brought the best and worst out of the Kerry, and Munster champions, in a titanic final in Limerick

On all three occasions - a 2011 semi-final, a 2012 quarter-final and this week a final - the Clare team gave Dr Crokes their toughest and tightest game, by some distance, of those respective provincial championships. So why have Dr Crokes struggled so much against Clare teams when they have blown the best Cork, Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick have thrown at them in this championship since 2010 (Nemo Rangers being the honorable exception in the 2010 final)?

One theory is that there is an inherent complacency that takes over when Kerry play Clare. When the counties meet at inter-county level the expectancy is that the Kingdom will prevail quite easily, and it might be that that expectation prevades through to the club scene. Of course, after two scares from Kilmurry-Ibrickane one would have thought that Dr Crokes wouldn't be sucked into that false sense a third time. And perhaps they weren't. The likelihood is that they weren't complacent; certainly they weren't in the first half when they played with all their usual cut and thrust to lead by eight points at half time.

Another theory with a pretty sound basis is that the recent Clare champions have just been very good football teams. Kilmurry-Ibrickane have emerged as the powerhouse of Clare football over the last decade, and six county titles and two Munster titles since 2002 puts them in a similar league with what Crokes have achieved in the same time. Cratloe may have just won their first Clare senior title but the considerable inter-county hurling talent among their number meant a team with huge fitness and self-belief faced Dr Crokes with no fear, and for 30 minutes they backed that self-belief up with an excellent performance.

No matter, Dr Crokes have survived this latest Clare scare and have two months to gather themselves and prepare for their third All-Ireland Club semi-final in three years. In mid-February they will meet the Mayo and Connacht champions Castlebar Mitchels - possibly back in the Gaelic Grounds - and it would be interesting to know what the Mitchels management felt watching on last Sunday in Limerick. At a basic level they might have seen the best of Dr Crokes and the worst of Dr Crokes.

Okay, maybe not quite the very best or the very worst, but a heady mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. No Crokes goals and just one meaningful save for Pierce Deloughrey to make in the Cratloe goal. On the plus side Dr Crokes went another sixty minutes - and their eighth championship match since Ballymun Kickhams last February - without conceding a goal from play. There was little of the county final dash and destruction they inflicted on Austin Stacks, and almost as many wides (11) and their fairly modest return of points (13). This wasn't vintage Dr Crokes by any stretch, but the Castlebar spies will have appreciated what they saw in fits and bursts from the Munster champions. Nothing more so than the character and confidence and patience and wherewithal to eke out an equaliser and then a winner in those closing moments when for most other teams in that situations their race would have been run.

But the journey back to Castlebar will have been shortened by the knowledge that this Dr Crokes team is not invincible. Not impregnable. They are, in fact, utterly beatable. Cratloe didn't manage it in the end, but surely the message delivered back to the Mitchels of Mayo will be that Cooper, Buckley, Brosnan et al will be there for the taking in February. Of course, Pat Holmes need only think back on the previous two Februarys to reinforce that belief. Last February Ballyhum Kickhams put a halt to Crokes All-Ireland ambitions and the year before Crossmaglen Rangers dumped Crokes out at the penultimate stage. It's last Sunday, though, which will nourish the Connacht champions most over the winter.

Should Dr Crokes be worried? Yes and no. Yes, because simple logic would suggest that the Mayo champions should be a better team than the Clare champions, so a second half performance like last Sunday's would surely be seized upon by Castlebar Mitchels with more devastating consequences for Crokes. And no because Dr Crokes have those two months to iron out those few kinks and if they bring their 'A' game to the All-Ireland semi-final it should be good enough to get them to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day.

It shouldn't be forgotten either that Dr Crokes were down three key personnel. Chris Brady was suspended, Jamie Doolan was ruled out mid-week with an injury, while Shane Myers hurt himself in the pre-match warm-up and had to withdraw from the starting team. On the flipside Mitchels will be without the suspended Barry Moran for the semi-final.

The bookmakers still have Dr Crokes as 11/10 favourites for the All-Ireland title, and it's probably hard to argue with that. Certainly they will be favourites against Castlebar on February 15. Perhaps not the 1/33 they were against Cratloe but fancied just the same. That will suit the Mayo team just fine.

Mitchels have already taken down the reiging All-Ireland champions, and despite it being a Kerry versus Mayo we don't see the Westerners freezing in the face of Kerry opposition the way their county team does.

Mitchels will have seen just about enough last Sunday to know that they can topple the Crokes. They will also appreciate that Crokes could annihilate them.

Time will tell which Dr Crokes shows up.