No Payne no gain for brilliant Dr Crokes

Captain John Payne, the an unsung hero of the past decade of Crokes dominance, is finally getting his due

Crokes captain John Payne celebrates with the Bishop Moynihan cup.
Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Crokes captain John Payne celebrates with the Bishop Moynihan cup. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Damian Stack

It's the sort of question that almost answers itself in the asking. Is John Payne underrated? Well, if you have to ask then, yes, he probably is or has been at the very least.

There's no harm in asking the question though if it helps shine a spotlight and gives recognition where it's due. Over the past couple of seasons the question has been posed more and more, so much so that people have wondered whether he should have had a senior inter-county career by now.

The time is probably past for that - Payne is thirty one years of age - but you can see why people are thinking that way. He's been one of the top defenders in the county championship for the best part of a decade.

Expanding on that theme even further - has there been a more consistent presence on the Kerry club scene this last decade or so than the Dr Crokes number two?

You could make a case for Bryan Sheehan - probably the greatest club player of the last decade - but Sheehan wouldn't have half the football played at club level as Payne has done.

That's no knock on Sheehan (a brilliant club and district man), it's simply the way of things when you're an inter-county footballer. When Sheehan was away with the Kerry senior footballers, Payne was on the case in the County League with the Crokes, rarely dropping the ball, driving standards.

The Colm Coopers and Eoin Brosnans and the like have been absolutely central to the Crokes project in the last fifteen years, but it's guys like Payne who have provided the building blocks of success.

When Payne first came on the scene Dr Crokes were nowhere near the top of the roll of honour. To overhaul the lead Austin Stacks held at the time looked the work of a generation or two at the least.

What's been achieved since then is nothing short of remarkable. The Crokes are now the leading club in the Kingdom with thirteen county titles, having won seven of the last nine years with this year's captain there every step of the way.

"I think when I started we'd five county finals won, the whole club and lost three," Payne explains.

"In 2010 then when we got the first one and to think if you'd asked me after losing my third one - and I'd played in them all - that you'd be here with the record in Kerry I don't know what to say... I'd have bitten your hand off.

"It's a lot of hard work. There's ten or twelve fellas involved since then. There's Tuesdays, there's Thursdays, there's weekends that's what it is, it's all hard work."

That's the thing that comes through loud and clear when you talk to these Crokes boys. None of it would be possible without that clear-eyed commitment and hunger for hard work.

That and an unbelievable desire for more and more again. The facts and figures - seven titles in nine years, seven wins from seven finals - don't even necessarily permeate in the here and now.

"It's hard to reflect on it when you're still playing," the captain says.

"You're still just looking for the next one. It's people, parents and things then who'll be reminding you of it now and then 'you have this' and you look back and you think we have had an incredible run, but it's all about the next game.

"If you lose the next game... It's tough to win them, so while you're winning them, try and win them."

Sometimes it's just that simple. Why slow down when you're having so much fun and Crokes are having fun? Though sometimes their play can be controlled - they were effectively patient at times against Dingle on Sunday - they play with a real joie de vivre. Just watch Gavin White's second half goal, the way he and Crokes swept from one end of the pitch to the other before planting the ball past a despairing Gavin Curran.

"I think we all just love playing football," Payne says.

"The group of players we have and there's fellas who didn't get a game today who'd start on any other team in the county. Some of them would start on the county team I'd say and they're just stone mad about football, just driving us. It's infectious when there's fellas around you driving you on."

For the rest of the county that's the worrying sign. Crokes are an evolving side. Since they won the All Ireland title two years ago they've introduced at least four new players to the starting fifteen - David O'Leary, Micheál Burns, David Shaw and Tony Brosnan.

When you consider that one of Payne's regular opponents in training in the last couple of years has been Tony Brosnan you begin to get an idea of how he's managed to stay as sharp as he has this entire time.

"Tony, we both I think drive each other on," he says.

"I wouldn't like it if Tony kicked a point off me in training and I'm sure when he gets out here and he starts kicking he's loving it. So we drive each other on. There's always a fresh fella to come in. Tony and [David] Shaw and [Jordan] Kiely.

"They're coming in meeting fellas who are there, experienced and they're learning off us and we're also having to keep on top of our game as well."

That's what you call a virtuous cycle and that's what everybody else is up against. Crokes are going precisely nowhere, except perhaps back to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day.

You never know for certain what might happen in a provincial or an All Ireland club campaign, but this Dr Crokes team looks to have all the ingredients necessary to put a meaningful challenge together.

When you've got a panel of players this good and a manager as clever and as accomplished as Pat O'Shea is over them the sky really is the limit. As long, that is, as everybody remains focussed.

Just as well then that they've a captain like John Payne - a man focussed on the next play and the next game - on the case, always looking to the future.