High flying Nemo a big fish to fry, says O'Neill
SOMETHING clicked in Harry O'Neill's mind after watching his side lose to Nemo Rangers in a challenge match in the spring.
Throughout a busy season that saw Dr Crokes play in the county league as well as in club, East and county championships, the thought never left him.
"It struck with me that they were, by far and away, the best team we played," O'Neill recalled. "Throughout the whole season, obviously we played some good teams in Kerry, but Nemo impressed me a whole lot."
As a younger man, his job in the army brought him to Skibbereen, so he consulted a few Cork friends and his suspicions were confirmed. Even among the great Nemo teams, the latest crop was highly regarded.
Nemo have the best record of anyone in Munster club football, though Crokes aren't exactly paupers. They met in 2006 and Crokes prevailed on their march to the All-Ireland club final the following St Patrick's Day, when only the Crossmaglen juggernaut denied them a second Andy Merrigan Cup.
Crokes won their first and only in 1992. The story goes that, as the players were about to take the field, an over-zealous maor went to halt a ruddy eight-year-old mascot taking to the field. Words were exchanged and, eventually, Colm Cooper made his first appearance at Croke Park.
O'Neill was also at the helm when Crokes won their last county championship in 2000. He was the first man to hand Cooper a start but he doesn't take any credit for it.
"As I tell people, I didn't give him his debut. He was available for selection and it was a no-brainer after that."
Cooper was 16 when he made his bow. He looked like a good breeze would blow him over, but O'Neill wasn't concerned.
"They're from hardy stock, the Coopers. Colm could look after himself, even as slight as he was. Anyway, he had four brothers on the team that time so he was alright."
Safety in numbers. They didn't get to play in Munster that season. The Millennium Cup was played that year, to celebrate the start of a new century, Kerry authorities decreed that the winners of that competition would go forward in the province. Seamus Moynihan and Johnny Crowley brought Glenflesk to the Munster final, where Nemo won.
"Nemo are Nemo. We've seen bits of them on DVD. They know about this competition, they know about football this time of year. They have a tradition, and people question how much tradition counts for. Well, it obviously means something when you look at them," O'Neill said.
"But we have done quite well when we have gotten out of Kerry too. We won Munster in 2006 and were beaten in an All-Ireland final in 2007. Our lads are quite experienced and might have won more. But we came up against a very good South Kerry side for a few years. They were nearly like a county side."
Crokes' Munster and All-Ireland credentials took a serious dent this year when Tipperary champions Aherlow took them to extra-time, meaning the thrashing of Limerick's Monaleen was long forgotten.
"There's always a danger in games like that where you are expected to win. Aherlow had good footballers and they had a game plan that we struggled with, and that is to their credit.
"I think Liam Kearns said afterwards that of all the teams he has trained, none of them stuck to the game plan like those lads did. They were very comfortable in what they were doing. We kept our composure, and when we kicked the equalising point at the end of normal time, you could see they were demoralised by that."
O'Neill knows they rode their luck against Aherlow, and that they have the chance to write another chapter in the club's impressive history.
Crokes had representatives on the first 20 All-Ireland-winning Kerry teams. Dr Eamon O'Sullivan did first what Mick O'Dwyer would do and train the Kingdom to eight All Ireland titles, but the former did it with several different teams over five decades. O'Sullivan also wrote a book on Gaelic football and gave it a title only a Kerry man could -- 'The Art and Science of Gaelic Football'. Crokes have since broken new ground and become the first club in the country to stream their matches live online.
"Football means a lot to everyone in this club," O'Neill said. "It is what keeps us all going, from the ladies committee who look after us at training to the underage sides. This is what we're all working towards."