Sunday 21 July 2019

'Unification' bout sees heavyweights make their pitch for club greatness

'Three visits to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day for Corofin have now all ended in considerable wins for them each time.' Stock photo: Sportsfile
'Three visits to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day for Corofin have now all ended in considerable wins for them each time.' Stock photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When the experimental handpass rule, aborted before the start of the National League, was officially signposted last October the debate reached into the archives for goals that couldn't have developed if the restriction allowing just three successive handpasses was in play. The search didn't take long.

Corofin's second goal in last year's All-Ireland club football final took centre stage, mesmerising in its construction, sublime in its conclusion with Michael Farragher's deft sidefoot.

There were six handpasses in the build-up, all weighted and angled differently to leave the Nemo Rangers defence - and the rest of us - in a spin trying to follow it. With people still taking their seats for the day the game was already done, Corofin 2-6 to 0-1 clear and cruising.

Some of the football they played was spellbinding. There have been bigger margins of victory in a club football final but surely never a better performance, especially in the context of their opponents Nemo Rangers, the most decorated club of all with seven titles.

Three visits to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day for Corofin have now all ended in considerable wins for them each time.

Two of those wins have come in the last four years. A third in five years, if victory over Dr Crokes is theirs on Sunday, would place them in elite company, one step away from Crossmaglen's three in four years between 1997 and 2000.

Nemo are the most successful club over the 48 years of the competition, one ahead of Crossmaglen.

But in terms of the 'best' team, that Crossmaglen 1997-2000 vintage is generally considered to fit that description.

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Invariably they found a way to win, the dour 1999 All-Ireland final against Ballina the prime example. But at their best, opponents couldn't live with them like a stellar Na Fianna team in the 2000 final, perhaps the best display in a club final until last year from Corofin.

In that four-year period, the change in Crossmaglen personnel was minimal with just 19 starters. The same midfield pairing and six forwards featured in each final.

Corofin's selection has been a little bit more expansive with 10 players likely to start all three finals in this five-year period. But the team's identity remains the same, Kieran Fitzgerald, Gary Sice, the Farraghers, Dáithí and Ian Burke, Ronan Steede, Michael Lundy and Liam Silke now being complemented by the likes of Kieran Molloy and Dylan Wall. Invariably, they have been greater than the sum of their parts.

But how great? Crossmaglen can always point to the internecine rivalries of the Ulster club championship and point to repeated success there - they lost just once in four years to Peter Canavan's Errigal Ciarán in late 1997 - as a path littered with greater danger.

Corofin have had St Brigid's, All-Ireland champions in 2013, and Castlebar, finalists in 2014 to 2016, to deal with out west in recent years, the most competitive era that Connacht club football has known on that basis.

It was interesting to hear and read Kevin Cassidy and Eamon McGee both reflect on Gaoth Dobhair's semi-final defeat to Corofin in much the same vein when they reviewed it, that they could have no regrets and hadn't actually appreciated how good Corofin were.

Sunday provides them with their biggest hurdle yet. Dr Crokes are bidding for a second All-Ireland title in three years and with their profile of young players could put themselves in a dominant position for a few years to come if they can turn over the champions.

When the emotional and novel element to the semi-finals subsided with the defeat of Mullinalaghta and Gaoth Dobhair, the two best club teams of recent times were left standing.

The club finals may be losing a little of their lustre and will become even more of a niche product when it moves to an early January slot next year but this has an intriguing feel to it, a unification bout of sorts.

Crokes have something more to prove than Corofin with the nature of their win over 14-man Slaughtneil two years ago. When they met in the semi-final two years ago, Crokes were rampant, winning by nine points as the effort to complete a 24-month cycle proved beyond Corofin.

No wonder so few clubs (Crossmaglen twice, St Finbarr's and UCD) have put back-to-back titles together. This Corofin team can already be considered one of the great club teams the competition has seen. Their final performances (10- and 15-point wins over established teams) entitle them to that. But back-to back titles will give them status alongside Crossmaglen.

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