It was a meat and two veg day at Croke Park on Friday, but it produced scenes of unconfined joy. And that even applied to the men who have mined on the county stage, especially Colm 'Gooch' Cooper, the mascot of 25 years ago and now the hometown hero.
When Crokes were in trouble in the first half and needed scores, he provided the big play, a score into the Hill end. This time it was a goal, stroked into the net from a tight angle that few others would have been cool enough or skilful enough to manufacture. Gavin White should have had another goal earlier but after steaming down the field like Usain Bolt and losing all the defenders with sheer pace, he seemed to have a bit of a speed wobble at the end and shot wide. Winning covers all these mistakes.
This was a club final of effort, mistakes, bad play and at times poor standards of football, with records set for hand-passing. Yet it was all the more genuine for all that. The greatest day in a club player's career, which by definition is the greatest day in any footballer's life.
These are the men who buy their own boots, don't get expenses and have nobody except their mothers to subsidise their food. A hero is someone who is looked on as such by his own community. Gooch Cooper did not need a club medal to be that among his own, but it has brought a certain peace of mind. The search is over.
Slaughtneil were just as brave. They are a bit more than a club. There seems to be a certain philosophy of life attached to them. They are not the Mormons but they have imbued their community with certain truths. Giving and sharing seem central to that. Sixty years ago in America they would have been branded by McCarthyites as Communists: that word is not far from 'community' and has an idealism about it. Looking after each other. That is surely better than materialism, where nobody looks after anyone but themselves.
The Slaughtneil revolution was right on track until half-time. Croke Park was wet and cold and a miserable gale blew down to the Hill end. Slaughtneil had played into the March tempest in the first half and were ahead by four at one stage; coming to the break they must still have been confident as they looked to go in one down with the elements to help in the second half.
Then, in a moment of madness, their dreams took a hard knock. Padraig Cassidy, who had slalomed through for a great goal earlier in the half, got involved in a bit of difficulty with Kieran O'Leary close to the line on the Hogan Stand side. He threw a punch which landed somewhere between knee and belly button, if you know what I mean. In boxing it would have meant automatic disqualification, in football the red card was the only possible outcome. Mickey Moran, the Slaughtneil trainer, was standing nearby: he looked and saw and knew that the hopes of south Derry were starting to unravel.
Crokes only scored three points in the second half but Slaughtneil could only manage two. In reality the half was played on Crokes' terms. They swamped their defence and used the Gooch as a playmaker around midfield. They brought on speed and skill in Michael Burns and Jordan Kiely and frustrated the spirit in Slaughtneil by holding the ball with hand-passes, back and forward across the pitch. Johnny Buckley and Fionn Fitzgerald were excellent too in composure terms. Fitzgerald did his chances of getting a starting place for Kerry no harm and was one of the best players on the pitch.
When Slaughtneil did get the ball they could not penetrate in that second half. They hand-passed over and back, and often lost ground and the ball as Crokes battled for everything. The Kerry club also had their homework done and Pat O'Shea deserves credit for this. They had obviously identified Chrissy McKaigue as the man most likely to spike their dreams after scoring four points in the semi-final. When he got possession he was immediately set upon by a few Crokes men, which meant he rarely got into a shooting position. The hunter became the hunted.
Brendan Rogers carried ball forward from the back and constantly took the battle to Crokes, but it mostly broke down around the 45 metre line. From there Crokes counter-attacked but never threw many forward; a three-point lead going into the last ten minutes always looked a winner unless there was a goal, and Slaughtneil never looked like getting one.
This was a game short of any ornaments. Brian Looney kicked a few great points for Crokes and Christopher Bradley looked early on as if he was on fire for Slaughtneil. In the end it became a no-frills war of attrition with almost no kicking of the ball in the last ten minutes by either side.
Crokes hand-passed at will for about five minutes near the end. Slaughtneil could not hunt down the ball in sufficient numbers, and any time they had possession they were forced to hand-pass going forward as Crokes had about ten defenders. At the centre of Crokes' keep-ball was the Gooch; every time a Kerryman was under pressure they gave it to him and he directed play away from congested areas. The key to exploiting numerical advantage is to keep men close to both sidelines as there is always is an 'out ball'.
It was a poor game but a great contest. The county virus has taken over club football so there is plenty of fouling away from the scoring area and little or no kicking. Yet a bit of class is still needed to win a game. There was more of it from Crokes, even if the sending-off was the most significant act in the whole game.
Crokes have had many disappointments in their quest for this crown and just when it seemed as if it would never happen for this bunch of players, they finally made it to the mountain top. The Gooch may not be the force of old, but his goal changed the course of the first half when Crokes were really struggling. How often before has he side-footed a goal into the Hill end? If he decides now that he is not returning to Kerry, he will have made his exit off the great stage with the biggest prize of all. A gold medal with his club on St Patrick's day. Nothing could compare to that.
Sunday Indo Sport