Battle of the Club Giants
by Cliona Foley
'WINNING takes talent. To repeat takes character.'
The words of legendary US basketball coach John Wooden are particularly apt for this year's AIB All-Ireland senior club finals, given that teams with such character will be slugging it out for the blue ribands.
The climax to the 2018/2019 season has thrown up two heavyweight bouts from some of the greats of the modern club game. In the football corner are the last two winners which has billed a virtual unification bout between reigning title holders Corofin (Galway) and 2017 champions Dr Crokes (Kerry).
In the hurling corner are the record six-time champions Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) against the 2013 winners St Thomas (Galway) – two teams dripping with intercounty talent, even along the side-line. Given that all four contenders are previous champions, the 'Croke Park factor' shouldn't rattle them like many other Paddy's Day protagonists, so high quality games are expected.
And yet, something has to give. There can only be two winners. There are, literally, sub-plots within sub-plots, in these two mouth-watering line-ups. Kerry kingpin’s Dr Crokes won their first title in 1992 and despite all of their talent, they had to wait another 25 years for their second, getting their hearts repeatedly broken in semi-finals until they beat Slaughtneil two years ago.
Their manager Pat O'Shea was one of their on-field heroes in 1992 when Colm Cooper, famously, was their eight-year-old mascot. Now that Pat's the manager, his son Gavin plays the same sort of tireless utility role and 'Gooch', so long their main man, is warming the bench beside Eoin Brosnan, two gilded veterans ready and itching to pounce.
Corofin are chasing their third title in five years and, noticeably, won both by double figures against Slaughtneil in 2015 and Nemo Rangers last season. Yet despite their apparent recent invincibility, Crokes have previously put a glove on the vaunted Galway men. They shocked them 2-11 to 0-8 in the 2017 semi-final in Limerick and that, actually, wasn't their first rodeo.
When the Killarney men went all the way in '92, they also beat Corofin. They also did it in Tuam, because 'last four' games weren't played in neutral venues back then.
Crokes' flying centre-back Gavin White, a PE and Maths student in UL, is emblematic of the many young guns now in their armoury who contributed to their 2017 success.“There's a lot of youth in our team now. Micheal Burns, Tony Brosnan and Jordan Kiely would probably be starting for most clubs in the country. They were on the bench, pushing for places in training, and that pushes up the standard for everyone else. We still have a lot of strength on our bench too.”
Winning the 2017 club final is still the pinnacle of White's burgeoning career. “I was down over by the Hogan Stand on the '45 when the final whistle went, and I just dropped to my knees with the sense of relief and satisfaction. The last 10 minutes of that game was the longest 10 minutes any Crokes supporter has ever had I'd say. We were so close and just so desperate to get over the line.”
This time they had to face the unenviable task of beating everyone's favourite underdogs Mullinalaghta (Longford) to get to this battle with the reigning champions who are powered by the Burkes, Silkes and Farraghers. They are also led by great veterans like Kieran Fitzgerald and Gary Sice. So, is White expecting the sort of epic tussle that pundits are predicting?
“We just have to concentrate on ourselves and can't worry about whether it's going to be a spectacle. We just think about us, we can't control anyone else. Corofin are going to bring what Corofin always bring,” he says calmly.
Given their personnel in the ranks and their history, Ballyhale Shamrocks are favourites in the hurling decider which opens a potentially brilliant double header of finals at 2:00pm. Only founded in 1972, they won their first three All-Ireland club titles in 1981, 1984, 1990 and then came again in 2007, 2010 and 2015.They include Kilkenny seniors like Michael and Colin Fennelly, Joey Holden and TJ and Eoin Reid but surrounding them now are talented youngsters like the Mullen and Cody brothers.
Another difference from their last victory in 2015 is that Henry Shefflin has gone from playing with them to managing them in the last 12 months. He has successfully led them to their first Leinster title in four years (a record ninth) and safely swatted aside the challenge from Munster champions, Ballygunner.
Three of his nephews – Evan Shefflin and Brian and Eoin Cody are now starring, and the latter, still a St Kieran's schoolboy, racked up 1-4 from play last time out.
St Thomas, famously led by the huge crew of Burke brothers, were relative unknowns when they won the 2013 title but have since kicked on and Galway senior star Conor Cooney is one of their key men.
After leading by seven at half-time they squeezed through a dramatic semi-final cliff hanger against Ruairí Óg Cushendall. It was corner-back David Sherry who broke upfield to put them ahead with the game deep into added-time, and they then needed a brilliant save from goalkeeper Cian Mahony to see them home.
“You don't want to let a lead like that slip but we were probably better off to get that kick up the backside and make sure the heads are right for the next day,” Cooney admits. “Looking at both teams, you'd expect it to be a traditional game, defensive enough but not with the sweeper as we've come to know them, but you never know,” he adds.
“We're going in as underdogs but that's probably the better tag to have,” Cooney reckons.
“People keep asking me about 2013 and I keep saying we're not looking back, we're only looking forward. Ballyhale won't be depending on their tradition either to win the match for them,” says Cooney.
But they're up against phenomenal tradition and history.This is Ballyhale's eighth final. Since losing their first to Blackrock in 1979 (an extraordinary 10-goal thriller with five green flags apiece), the Kilkenny giants have never lost one.
Victory for Dr Crokes would complete a clean-sweep for Kerry of this year's club football titles as Kilcummin have already claimed the intermediate, and Beaufort the junior.
This is also the first time in 13 years that two teams from one county could do the 'club double'.
Could St Thomas and Corofin manage to replicate that great feat achieved by Salthill Knocknacarra and Portumna back in 2006? And who will win the mouth-watering 'unified' title fight for the Andy Merrigan? These are the intriguing questions ahead of a very special date in Croke Park that never fails to delight.
2019 AIB All-Ireland SH Club Finals
Sunday March 17
SHC Final - Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) v St Thomas (Galway), 2.0, Croke Park.
SFC Final – Corofin (Galway) v Dr Crokes (Kerry), 3.45, Croke Park.