Heavyweight title bout to determine champion of champions
All-Ireland Club SFC Final: Dr Crokes v Corofin, Sunday, March 17, Croke Park, Dublin. Throw-in at 3.45pm Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry)
Paul Brennan anticipates a heavyweight All-Ireland Club SFC final between Dr Crokes and Corofin that will be decided by a points decision rather than a knock-out blow.
It has only happened once before and you have to go back 44 years. In 1975 UCD beat Nemo Rangers by two points to retain their All-Ireland Club SFC title. It was a final that pitched the two most recent All-Ireland champions together in the decider, Nemo having won the first of their seven titles in the spring of '73 and the Dublin students having relieved them of it the following year. Next Sunday will be only the second time in the 48-year history of the competition that the two most recent winners will go head to head in the final. Dr Crokes - champions in 2017 - back in Croke Park looking to unburden Corofin of the Andy Merrigan Cup. It has the makings of a memorable final and is one that should appeal to any and all Dublin-based neutrals not bothered about the St Patrick's Day parade across town.
The danger, of course, is that we won't get the game of football we might expect from these two teams; between them they have scored an average of almost 22 points in every game of their respective routes to Sunday's final. The fear - as Crokes midfielder Dáithí Casey has suggested - is that there could be a lengthy feeling out period at the start of the game - like two tug o' war teams happy just to take the strain and hold - before both start to properly pull in the direction of victory.
Without getting too caught up in the numbers game it's worth noting that Dr Crokes have scored 19 goals in 10 games and Corofin have scored 22 in 11 games, but while the expectation for goals will be obvious up in the stands, down on the pitch there could be a much more cautious approach with priority given to minding the house rather than everyone sitting out on the porch. Perhaps a more telling statistic is that Dr Crokes have conceded 14 goals while Corofin have coughed up just five (over an extra game), which is something the Galway champions will surely look on as a small weakness - but a weakness nonetheless - in the otherwise bullet-proof Kerry champions. Three times Dr Crokes have completed a game without conceding a goal, but in their last three games they have conceded five. Even though Crokes have stellar defenders in their full-back line, and last year's first-choice Kerry goalkeeper behind them, it has to be a concern for the management going into Sunday's final and one that surely has been worked in since the semi-final, insofar as these things can really be worked on.
For their part, the stats suggest that Corofin are a tidier and tighter outfit at the back, but one has to wonder - and conclude - that they have yet to come up against forward unit as prolific and potent as what they will encounter on Sunday. He might be closing in on his 36th birthday and seeing his powers waning slightly, but it won't have escaped Corofin that Colm Cooper can't get into the starting team and wonder why. By now the why is no secret, and neither is the who. When the teams met in the All-Ireland semi-final in Limerick two years ago Tony Brosnan came on for the last 15 minutes, but despite scoring a point near the end of the game his presence or potential would hardly have registered with a Corofin team beaten by nine points that day. David Shaw had won an All-Ireland medal the previous September, but was some way down the reckoning as a Crokes senior player. Now, between them, they are keeping the venerated Gooch out of the team as they torment defences the way Cooper did in his prime.
It's a moot point to wonder if Cooper would find a place in Corofin's first fifteen, but the Galway champions not only have to concern themselves with marking these two young Crokes tyros - as well as Kieran O'Leary, Brian Looney, Micheal Burns and Gavin O'Shea - but they've also to know that Cooper will make his entrance at some stage in the final, and most likely at a time when the Corofin defenders are sucking hard in the rarefied air of the last 15 to 20 minutes of an All-Ireland final.
Dr Crokes won't be without their worries either. That 2017 semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds might have fallen well short of Corofin's expectations - they were All-Ireland champions just two years earlier - but they have claimed the last three Connacht titles and are reigning All-Ireland champions. In that regard they've been every bit as consistently good as Dr Crokes and have the medals to prove it. Micheál Lundy, Gary Sice, Ian Burke, Jason Leonard and the Farraghers, Martin and Mike, form a forward unit every bit as lethal as the Killarney club's, even if they mightn't have as many household names on the inter-county front. Amazingly, Burke was the only Corofin player to start against Kerry in last year's Super 8 game, and against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, but that shouldn't fool anyone - not least Dr Crokes - into thinking this Corofin team isn't sprinkled with quality. And while the Galway champions will start a team on Sunday almost identical to the one Crokes thrashed in the Gaelic Grounds two years ago, the Kerry champions would be well warned not to take anything for granted here.
Dáithí Casey isn't being arrogant, or disrespectful of Corofin, when he told this newspaper last week that if Dr Crokes play to their full potential they will win. It's simply a measure of how confident he and his team mates are in their own ability. The same sentiment, we can be sure, could come from the mouth of any Corofin player. That's what makes this final such a widely anticipated one, and one so very hard to predict the outcome of.
We may well get a goal-fest, or we might just as easily get a cagey, claustrophobic contest. Either way we will get a champion that will write itself into immortality.
In boxing parlance this is a unifying title fight - Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua putting their reputations on the line to see who is the best of the best. Corofin, in this case, hold the title, but Dr Crokes have every right to call themselves an exceptional team if they can deliver a second title to Lewis Road in three years.
Two great exponents of the game, this one might be decided on points rather than a KO.