Kilcoo wary of Slaughtneil's ability to win frees

Kilcoo’s Niall Branagan challenges Slaughtneill’s Se McGuigan during last year’s Ulster Club SFC final Picture by Philip Walsh

KILCOO will “challenge the Slaughtneil forwards to stay on their feet” in Sunday’s eagerly anticipated Ulster Club SFC opener, says selector Paddy Murray.

Having secured their sixth Down title in-a-row, the Mourne side now meet their conquerors from last year’s provincial final.

That game in Armagh produced seven scores from frees – four for Slaughtneil and three for Kilcoo.

Across their whole run from the Derry championship to the All-Ireland final last season, the reigning Ulster champions scored 0-51 of their 7-130 from frees, accounting for just under 34 per cent of their overall score.

Murray says that the Magpies have been conscious of their defensive efforts ever since Clontibret pipped them at this stage in 2014 on an afternoon when Conor McManus scored 0-8 of the Monaghan side’s 1-9 tally from frees.

Highlighting the Emmet’s win over Killyclogher last year, after which St Mary’s boss Dominic Corrigan accused referee Ciaran Branagan of giving the Derry side “a platform in the first half…that I didn’t feel was justified”, Murray says his side have doubled down on their defensive discipline this season.

“It’s a recurring theme that they get into their scoring third and orchestrate a score, whether it’s from a free or making a bit of space for themselves. There are one or two individuals they look for all the time to get their primary scores.

“You could start watching DVDs from the first round in the Derry championship until the final, and it’s just reoccurrence after reoccurrence after reoccurrence.

“They get it up into that scoring third, they’re coming away with a score by whatever means. If they get that space, they’ll shoot and they will score. If they’re not getting the space, they’ll orchestrate a free kick.

“We were well warned before we got to that stage last year. Against Killyclogher, it was well documented that referees and officials were influenced, particularly by their forward line.

“I go back to the Clontibret game, Conor McManus bought free after free. A year after that, Slaughtneil did exactly on to Killyclogher what Clontibret did to us.

“On the back of the Clontibret match, we had to say to lads that what may not be a free in county Down football may be a free in Ulster, and that we really need to look at.

“You have to control the controllables. Some things we can’t control but one thing we can is our tackling ability.

“We needed to sit down and look at it and ask if we’re conceding too many frees. Our average concession of scoreable frees in Down has gone from eight last year down to four this year.

“We will ask the question of Slaughtneil. We will keep them honest in defence and after that, it’s up to the officials to say if it’s a free or not. We will not be giving away frees and that’s a big part of their game. What we’ll be asking them is to stay on their feet.”

The Magpies will be without Ryan Johnston, who suffered a broken foot in the county final win over Burren, as well as key defender Aaron Branagan, who has suffered a hamstring strain.

Murray was playing for Kilcoo when they were in Division Three in the mid-90s, so he’s well placed to know that the current bunch are “very fortunate” to be enjoying the success they are.

Yet for all of it, that provincial heartbreak has still been prevalent in their story. And yet, despite last year’s having been their closest brush with the trophy itself, there have been other defeats equally as hard to take.

Falling to 13-man Ballinderry in 2013 and that last-minute sucker-punch from Clontibret the following year have stuck longest in the throat.

But for Murray, last year’s loss was different because Paul McIver’s side never reached the level they feel they’re capable of.

“They’re not easy to take. The amount of effort, sweat and toil that goes in to get to those stages is immense. There’s no one particular one that stands out.

“The Clontibret defeat was hard to take considering you had the whole game in your control to be stung at the very end by a sucker punch, it was very hard to take.

“There have been different factors in different years that have contributed to us getting beat. Last year was hard to take because you can play a team and put your hand up and say ‘they were that much better than us’.

“We’ve been down that road and you just have to go away and get fixed and right the wrongs.

“But last year we had individuals stepping forward saying ‘lads, I had one today’.

“As a collective, we felt we made too many individual mistakes. They didn’t make as many as us and they came away with the prize.

“I think it’s fair enough to say that the two teams were very well-balanced. I know it’s a cliché but it comes down to very small margins. That’s what was ultimately the difference the last day.”

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