A strong case for club over county

All-Ireland Club SFC Final: Dr Crokes v Corofin: While his inter-county career hasn't gone to plan, Daithi Casey is living the football dream with his club and looking for a second All-Ireland Club medal. The Dr Crokes midfielder spoke to Paul Brennan

Dáithí Casey in action against Johnny Byrne of Kildare during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 6 match at Austin Stack Park on St Patrick’s Day in 2018
Dáithí Casey in action against Johnny Byrne of Kildare during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 6 match at Austin Stack Park on St Patrick’s Day in 2018

Next Sunday - March 17 - Dáithé Casey will be front and centre in Croke Park, playing midfield for his club and trying to win his second All-Ireland Club Championship medal.

Go back exactly twelve months and Casey was also in action on St Patrick's Day; on that occasion he was helping Kerry to an important win over Kildare in the National League, with the Killarney man kicking two points from his centre-forward starting position.

Casey's days in a Kerry senior team jersey go all the back to early 2011 - a few weeks before his 21st birthday - when he came on in a four-point National League win over Mayo in Castlebar. A year as a Kerry minor followed by three with the Under-21 panel suggested Casey had the right stuff to make it at the top level, but the promise of heady Kerry days alongside club mates Colm Cooper, Kieran O'Leary, Johnny Buckley and Fionn Fitzgerald never materialised.

He was no sooner in with the Kerry than he was gone again, and it would be a full three years before he'd wear the green and gold again, coincidentally in another League game away to Mayo. Like his initial time with Kerry, his second coming started and ended against Mayo, and he was cast aside after the 2015 League opener against Mayo in Killarney.

Exactly three years later - February 1, 2018 - Casey was back in a Kerry team, kicking the winning point in Kerry's round one League win over Donegal, and drawing praise from then Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice. "He has been playing absolutely fantastic football for Crokes and he was on our radar last year," Fitzmaurice said. "He is a great guy, works hard. For a Killarney man to get a great score like that and to win the game by a point is all good." Just shy of his 28th birthday it seemed that it might be third time lucky for Casey with regard to his inter-county career. Three substitute appearances and two League starts later - he never played a Championship minute for Kerry - Casey's Kerry days were over again.

By August Fitzmaurice was gone as manager and by December Casey was surplus to new manager Pater Keane's requirements.

"Kerry has never worked out for me as I would have liked," he says of his dalliances with the Kerry team. "It's funny because every time - every time - I'm in it just hasn't worked out. I don't know why. Obviously there's just been something. I think I do play better for Crokes than I do in with Kerry but I don't know... What's disappointing is that I've had so many bites at the cherry... I thought I used to do fine. Any time I did play I thought I did grand, but I suppose I didn't stand out as much with Kerry."

There is a whiff of regret there all the time, but he's looking for no one's sympathy. He turned 29 last week, is getting married in 2020, and has the not insignificant of next week's All-Ireland Club final to ready himself for.

"It's not the end of the world because we've been very successful with Crokes and I wouldn't change that for the world, but it would have been great to have played with Kerry at the highest level. Unfortunately that just didn't happen and others fellas did step up to the plate basically, so while it's disappointing I'm always able to be a supporter of Kerry and that's a good thing. When I was younger I found that more difficult, but now there's more things in my life. I'm older and I'm able to enjoy life more, whereas before football was absolutely everything. I had to play with Kerry. Now I can see there's more to life as a 29-year old. I will always look back and be disappointed I didn't play in All-Ireland finals, didn't play in big Munster finals, but thankfully Crokes definitely softens that blow."

Winning a second All-Ireland Club medal - this time at midfield - would surely peak the interest of any other inter-county manager, but Casey isn't looking at Sunday's final as another audition for Kerry. Nor will he be going out against Corofin with a point to prove to Keane or anyone else around the Kerry set-up.

"That's down to Peter Keane and he's gone in a new direction. He's gone with the younger fellas who are doing great, in fairness, and that's the way that inter-county is gone. It's all about having legs and pace is everything. I'm no slouch...but he's just gone a different direction and there's no harm in that. The lads who have stepped in have done excellent so far and it will be interesting to see how they progress as the year goes on, but there had to be some change. They're fantastic players. I only played with Seánie O'Shea and David Clifford for one year, but you can see how talented they are. There's loads of new players. Isn't it better that David Shaw is going to be in with Kerry than Dáithí Casey ten years later still trying to make it? If David makes it I'll be very happy for him. I remember coaching David and Gavin [White] and Micheál Burns and all them lads at the summer camps when I was sixteen or seventeen and they were seven or eight. It didn't work out for me, but if it works out for everyone else that's fine for me.

"When I was 21 or 22 I remember the first time I was in there and I got dropped by Jack O'Connor and I was like, 'F*** you, I'm going to show you in the [county] championship' but as you get older different things happen. I always did want to play with Kerry, that was my dream when I was out the back of the house. I'm comfortable in my own skin now. Crokes has definitely helped in that regard. You're still playing in the big games with them all the time, and playing to a high standard all the time. I love playing with Crokes all the time. These are my best friends, yeah, and that's a big thing."

One of those friends is Johnny Buckley, whom Casey will partner at midfield on Sunday, in what is a new role for him in the team this season. The departure of Ambrose O'Donovan left a void in the middle of the field and Casey - the erstwhile speedster half-forward - was the obvious choice to step in.

"It's enjoyable. It's a bit different. I wouldn't say I've had to adapt my game, but I've had to look at my defensive duties a bit more. That'd be the biggest thing," he says of his new place on the team. "Before this I'd have seen myself as a scoring threat, I needed to score 1-2, 1-3 every game. Now it's more about linking with the half-forward line, with the full forward line, trying to help the defence. I'd still be hoping to score, but I suppose I'm playing a more mature game now, maybe, whereas before my job was to score. Now my job is to help the team to win. As I get older my brain is probably working more now in a game than when I was younger. I used to be more off-the-cuff before. The biggest thing in my game now is it's not as much about me as it is about the team, or about who scores now. I was never a selfish player in that I needed to score 1-3 in a game for myself, but as a forward you might have a number in your head that I'd feel I had to reach in a game or I'd be disappointed.

"I'm really enjoying my time now out around the middle. I would have played a lot there in my underage days. I wouldn't mind going back into the forwards either at the same time, but [midfield] is just where the team needs me at the moment. It's nice that there isn't a fella hanging off me for the whole game anymore. For the last ten years I would have been very tightly marked so I suppose you do have a bit more freedom around the middle. You've a bit more space out there. It's a different role really. You're going from being a scorer to being an assist kind of man. I'm good friends off the field with Johnny. Thankfully we're getting there as a partnership because it has taken a while, but the big test will be in Croke Park where it's all about legs."

Sunday's final will certainly be about legs, but it will also be about hearts and minds. And brotherhood. Every club team will call on the ties that bind it but this Crokes squad - even though it's not built around bands of brothers or a couple of families - is special in that regard. The bulk of it has been on the road quite a while, enduring plenty of bad days before the good ones dawned, and Casey is now in the particular place sandwiched between the older crew that were there in 2007 when they lost a final to Crossmaglen and the younger brigade, those players he mentored at summer camps in Lewis Road.

"What's fantastic about this group of players over the last ten years is how driven so many of us are to keep winning and keep going back. Success is what drives us to keep going," Casey muses. "The boys who are a few years older than me, Brian Looney, Kieran O'Leary, Luke Quinn, Smiler [Michael Moloney] these are the fellas who have really driven the standard for the last ten to fifteen year. Thankfully myself, Johnny (Buckley), Fionn (Fitzgerald) and Buddy (David O'Leary) have followed suit, and it seems to have continued now with the young fellas, every year there seems to be one or two added and they seem to continually add to it. There's even more coming in now, there's three or four at a time, which is great.

"That's the biggest thing, I think, that's made us the team we are over the last ten years. Their commitment to excellence has brought along the rest of us to be at that level. I think the success we've had in the last few years has been based on the adversity we've had in the previous years. The hurt of losing [All-Ireland]semi-finals, the hurt of originally losing county finals before I started. I lost one in 2009 but those other boys had lost a lot before they won a lot recently. As the saying goes, you have to lose one to win one, and that is definitely the case with us. A lot of our past experiences have helped us to perform better and hopefully keep performing to a level we expect of ourselves."

Now there's one last performance to wring out of themselves. Crokes and Corofin have cut a swathe through their respective county and provincial championships and now rock up to Croke Park where something has to give. Casey has an interesting read on what might happen.

"Going back to two years ago it was an open enough game. I don't know if it will be as open. You see it in Premier League games, the two worst defences and they play a nil-all. I'm not saying either team is going to shut up shop, but I wouldn't expect it to be unbelievably free-flowing at the start maybe. There'll probably be a feeling out period," he reasons. "The biggest thing [for us] is that every fella performs. When we perform to the level that we can, we win. If we don't we will lose to Corofin. That's the way I feel about it. If every fella can perform to our level we have a great chance of winning.

"Corofin is the biggest challenge that we have faced to date. This Corofin team is even better than the team we played two years ago because they have that added bonus and extra confidence of winning an All-Ireland. We know we are up a very good team, we are a very good team ourselves, so it has the makings of a very good game."