AIB ALL-IRELAND club finals day is almost upon us.
Cuala (Dublin) and Ballyea (Clare) are both first-time finalists in the hurling while in the football, Slaughtneil will contest their second final in three seasons.
Dr. Crokes from Kerry have also been here before, but not since 2007, when they were denied by Crossmaglen Rangers after a replay.
But the Killarney giants have been crowned champions once before, back in 1992 when they saw off Dublin’s Thomas Davis by a point.
There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding both ties and here, we look at six of the main talking points ahead of the St Patrick’s Day clashes.
1. Can the Gooch claim elusive club medal to complete the set?
Source: Tom Beary/INPHO
It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of neutrals wouldn’t begrudge Kerry superstar Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper an AIB All-Ireland senior club medal.
He’s won everything else the game has to offer and a club title would complete the set for the gifted attacker.
After the club final, thoughts will turn to Cooper’s inter-county future, and whether or not he intends to continue for another season in the green and gold.
Cooper’s the holder of five All-Ireland senior medals with Kerry but perhaps winning one with the club would trump anything he’s achieved with the Kingdom.
After so many near misses down through the years, Crokes would dearly love to end a 25-year wait for a second Andy Merrigan Cup win.
Cooper may then decide to bow out at the very top, but Kerry fans would love to see him give it another season in county colours.
2. Will Cuala managed to keep a lid on Tony Kelly?
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
Tony Kelly is, quite simply, a hurling force of nature.
Last November, we asked if the Ballyea wizard is the greatest ever player to emerge from Clare and that’s high praise indeed for a man who’s still just 23 years old.
Kelly should find Croke Park to his liking in the hurling decider but remarkably, it’s the first time he’ll have graced the sod since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay victory over Cork.
Much of Cuala’s pre-game planning will focus on curbing Kelly’s threat but to devote too much attention to him would ignore other key attacking weapons, namely dual star Gary Brennan, Niall Deasy and Pat Joe Connolly, the Kerry man in Ballyea’s ranks.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Cuala but equally, Ballyea will worry about the scoring prowess of Dublin stars David Treacy, Mark Schutte and red-hot Con O’Callaghan, who has professed a preference for football at inter-county level.
A fascinating tactical battle lies in store but if Kelly fires, Ballyea are in with a big, big chance.
The 2013 Hurler of the Year delivered a dazzling Munster final performance against Glen Rovers last November and the stage is set for Kelly to stamp his class all over GAA HQ.
3. Double glory beckons for Slaughtneil
Source: Presseye/Philip Magowan/INPHO
For a spell, Slaughtneil had their sights set on an All-Ireland club treble.
That dream died when the Slaughtneil hurlers lost out to Cuala in the All-Ireland semi-final but a double remains a big possibility.
The club’s camogie stars kept their side of the bargain by seeing off Galway outfit Sarsfields in the recent All-Ireland final and now it’s the turn of the club’s senior footballers.
The club’s hurling captain, Chrissy McKaigue, is the inspirational centre half back for the footballers.
His marking job on St Vincent’s dangerman Diarmuid Connolly drew widespread praise in the All-Ireland semi-final and now Slaughtneil are aiming to complete the job against Dr. Crokes.
As Meatloaf once sang, two out of three ain’t bad – and that’s still a live possibility for Slaughtneil.
4. Brothers in opposite camps in hurling decider…
One of the quirks of club fare is that big games can often pit family members against one another.
And so it is with Ballyea and Cuala in the hurling decider, with the Keane household very much a divided one.
What makes this story more intriguing is the fact that Niall Keane is a former Ballyea man who joined Dublin champions Cuala ahead of the current campaign.
His brother, Aonghus, is still togging out with Ballyea but it would still take something special for both players to line out on the pitch at the same time.
For their respective All-Ireland semi-finals, both players were named in the number 24 shirts. Still, it could happen that both men are introduced as subs at Croke Park.
5….As two Kerrymen go head to head for the Tommy Moore Cup
Kerry hurling can take reflective pride in its underage work on All-Ireland club final day.
Two stars produced by the county are expected to start in the hurling decider – Darragh O’Connell for Cuala, and Pat Joe Connolly for Ballyea.
O’Connell won a Christy Ring Cup medal in 2011 and three All-Ireland U21 B titles as a Kerry hurler, while Connolly is a three-time county SHC winner with Ballyduff, who’s also worn the county shirt with distinction.
Members of O’Connell’s home club Abbeydorney are making the trip to Croke Park, while a travelling contingent from Ballyduff will also venture to the capital to cheer on Connolly.
It’s not often that Kerry hurlers grace All-Ireland final day but O’Connell and Connolly will play their part, as both clubs appear in the showpiece for the very first time.
O’Connell is now plying his inter-county trade with Dublin and will rejoin Ger Cunningham’s panel after the St Patrick’s Day decider.
6. Dr. Crokes aim to end Munster’s barren run
Source: Tom Beary/INPHO
The All-Ireland senior club football title has been shared among three provinces in recent years – with Munster the notable exception.
Cork’s Nemo Rangers were the last team from Munster to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup, back in 2003.
Connacht ruled the roost for the next three seasons, Caltra, Ballina Stephenites and Salthill-Knocknacarra all tasting success.
The baton then passed to Crossmaglen Rangers from Armagh, before St Vincent’s beat Nemo in the 2008 decider.
Kilmacud Crokes from Dublin were victorious in 2009, before Ulster dominated with victories for St Gall’s and Crossmaglen (twice).
Connacht ruled the roost in 2013, when St Brigid’s of Roscommon were victorious, before the trophy returned to Dublin giants St Vincent’s in 2014.
2015 was Galway outfit Corofin’s year before Dublin’s Ballyboden St Enda’s won out against Castlebar Mitchels 12 months ago.
Dr. Crokes are flying the flag for Kerry and Munster at GAA HQ but failure to win would extend the province’s barren streak. No team from Munster has contested a final, until now, since Clare’s Kilmurry-Ibrickane in 2010.
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