Croke Park is home away from home for Kerry
Colm Cooper has played almost twice as many Championship matches in Croke Park as he has in Killarney but, like so many of his Kerry team-mates, a visit to HQ brings out his best, says Kieran McCarthy
DARA O CINNEIDE can remember a time, and it's not that long ago, when a Kerry football team was brought to Croke Park in order to acclimatise to the grand surroundings before an All-Ireland semi-final.
While this seems almost too absurd to be true, considering Kerry's modern-day success at HQ, it did happen -- just 11 years ago under Paidi O Se's reign.
"He brought us up there in 2000, before the semi-final against Armagh, just to get a feel for the place again," O Cinneide recalled.
"It's strange to say that you had to bring a group of Kerry players there to get used to Croke Park, whereas now they are so used to it. It's like a second home to them."
Twelve months ago, it was more a house of horrors than a friendly face when Down defeated Kerry in the county's last championship trip to Croke Park but Jack O'Connor's troops are odds-on to exorcise those ghosts this Sunday in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick -- and in doing so, improve Kerry's Croker statistics ever further.
With success breeding success, Kerry's Croke Park record since 2000 is impressive, with the Kingdom having played a staggering 31 championship games at headquarters, out of a total of 74 matches in that period, which works out at just over 40pc of all championship matches.
Of those 31 games in Croke Park, Kerry have won 22 (71pc), drawing three games (10pc) and losing only six (19pc), with just four counties having defeated them there in the last 11 years -- Meath (2001), Tyrone ('03, '05 and '08), Armagh ('02) and Down (2010).
But the Kingdom's formidable Croke Park reputation, coinciding with a golden era for Kerry football that includes five All-Ireland titles since the turn of the century and a record-equalling six straight appearances in the final, also means that their players view the GAA's crown jewel as their home away from home. Just look at the stats.
Colm Cooper has played more championship games for Kerry at Croke Park (26) than at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney (15). Nearly 50pc of Kieran Donaghy's championship appearances have been at Croke Park (15 out of 32). Ditto for Declan O'Sullivan (23 out of 50). The list goes on.
With such familiarity, born out of success, there is a special affinity between Kerry's footballers and Croker, with the ground synonymous with more good memories than bad for this current group, as Eamonn Fitzmaurice explains.
"Croke Park is where they want to be. It's the reason why they train. It's the reason they make all the sacrifices. It's a special place for a Kerry footballer," the three-time All-Ireland winner said.
"They know that getting to Croke Park is a signal to up it a gear. Once you get there, you are at the real end of the championship. It's time to get down to business. That's what they are there for. It's where they want to be. It gets the juices flowing."
And O Cinneide, who sees Croke Park as Kerry's treat after the provincial slog, believes that there is a psychological element to Kerry's recent good record in the capital.
"If you are a Kerry player coming into the team and you are told 'sure Kerry teams always play well in Croke Park' then you start to believe that," O Cinneide said.
"If you grow up hearing 'Kerry players belong in Croke Park' and 'they always perform there' then you believe it. The ground holds no fear to you because you feel at home there. Tradition, routine, habits and customs all count for something when you play a particular field."
Not only do Kerry footballers feel comfortable in the open surrounds of Croke Park, but the slightly larger pitch (144m x 86m) suits their style, according to Fitzmaurice.
"It plays big and that suits the way that Kerry play, especially the forwards. If a ground plays small, like a lot of provincial grounds do, then Kerry can't play the expansive game that they like, whereas in Croke Park the players are so used to it and they can play the brand of football that they like," adds Fitzmaurice, who played 20 championship games in Croke Park.
It's a view that is shared by current Kerry star Darran O'Sullivan. "If you don't want to play in the big arenas you might as well not bother playing. It's all about getting to Croke Park. And it's all about playing there," he said.
"The pitch is big. It's nice and spacious. In terms of it suiting the Kerry forwards, we just like it there. It's that bit bigger, and you can spread the ball a bit more and play a bit more ball there. It's a footballer's field."
Not alone is it a footballer's field; O Cinneide is adamant that Croke Park is also a kicker's field, and that plays right into Kerry's hands, at least in the last decade.
"It's a kicker's field," he said, "and in the last 10 years Kerry would have put a lot of emphasis on the kicking skill and kicking the ball. Croke Park lends itself towards kicking the ball rather than short-passing.
"And Kerry have had some great kickers of a ball -- Maurice Fitzgerald, Darragh O Se, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper -- all confident and beautiful kickers of a ball.
"The bounce is honest there. The wind is honest. There is no rogue element there. If the kick goes astray it's your fault, not the surface, not the wind.
"That's why the best kickers excel at Croke Park."
It's a stadium that ticks all the boxes from a Kerry perspective, hence the much-bandied term 'the Croke Park factor'.
And the players and management have the Croke Park routine, right from the moment they leave Kerry until they set foot on the pitch, a routine that is adhered to religiously.
Now it's Limerick's turn to take on Kerry in their home away from home, to discover what statistic they will become; join one of the nine counties Kerry have defeated there since 2000 -- Cork (6), Dublin (3), Mayo (3), Galway (3), Armagh (2), Monaghan (2), Meath, Roscommon and Derry -- or become only the fifth county to beat Kerry in Croke Park since 2000.
A bad omen for the Treaty Men is that no Munster team has beaten Kerry in a Croke Park championship match.
Just ask Cork about Kerry's Croke Park factor.