Kilcoo and Scotstown clash in curtainraiser that could have been Ulster's grand finale
Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round: Scotstown (Monaghan) v Kilcoo Eoghan Rua (Down) (tomorrow, Clones, 2.30pm)
By Andy Watters
ULSTER'S curtainraiser would have made an excellent grand finale, so it's tough on tomorrow's losers that they won't even make it to the quarter-final stage.
But to be the best you have to beat the best and the winners of tomorrow's showdown at St Tiernach's Park will have cleared a significant hurdle on the way to possible Ulster glory.
Scotstown and Kilcoo are no strangers to this competition. Both had provincial ambitions last year before coming up short against Crossmaglen – Kilcoo in the semi-final, Scotstown in the final.
With the perennial Armagh champions out of the picture this year, supporters of both clubs will be licking their chops at the prospect of a rare Ulster title.
Kilcoo have never landed the Seamus McFerran Cup. Down's ‘Magpies' have been knocking on the door for the past five years, but the closest they came to landing the title came in 2012 when they lost the final.
Since then they've become Down's most successful club and it was Jim McCorry who turned them from challengers into the Mourne county's undisputed super-power. During his time, McCorry developed a side that no other club in Down could match for commitment, fitness or organisation.
With Conor Laverty leading by example on the pitch, McCorry won three in-a-row before he left for a spell in charge of Down. There was a feeling that Kilcoo might fade in his absence, but Derry native Paul McIver has continued the upward progression.
Two more county titles have followed and, while the trademark levels of workrate and commitment are just as high, Kilcoo look a more fluent footballing side under McIver.
They play with a variety going forward that keeps the opposition guessing and this year's county final against Clonduff was over before half-time.
Kilcoo kicked long early on and, with their opponents pushed back, they switched to a pacey running game that tore holes in the Clonduff defence and led to first half goals for Aaron Morgan and Daryll Branagan and another after the break from Ceilum Doherty.
The defensive tenacity of the Branagan brothers provides solid foundations for the side and goalkeeper Niall Kane's kick-outs to the midfield of Fintan McGreevy and James McClean were a feature of the commanding wins in the Down semi-final and final.
In attack, the ability of Martin and Paul Devlin and Conor Laverty gives the side devastating firepower even without the injured Jerome Johnson. Ryan Johnson hasn't played since the county final but is expected to start in a settled Kilcoo side.
Meanwhile, Monaghan's ‘An Bhoth' have lost to the eventual champions in their previous two Ulster campaigns.
In 2013 they had Ballinderry on the rack and Darren Hughes had a chance to put the game to bed only for luck to desert him - his shot smacked the underside of the bar and the ball was scrambled away. Ballinderry rallied, nicked it with a series of late scores and went on to win Ulster.
Last year – again after seeing off Clontibret in the Monaghan final – Scotstown beat Derry's Slaughtneil (losing All-Ireland finalists in the 2014/15 season) and Tyrone's Trillick before taking on Crossmaglen in Armagh.
Despite a howling wind and driving rain the clubs produced a classic characterised by the titanic individual battle between Darren Hughes and James Morgan. It went to extra-time before Crossmaglen's extra experience eventually saw them prevail by five points.
The memory of those losses will sharpen Scotstown's edge for tomorrow. In Monaghan this year they waited four games for a goal only to sink Clontibret with two in a minute from Orin Heaphey and Kieran Hughes.
That salvo sealed a deserved win and since then manager Mattie McGleenan has been snapped up by Cavan.
This week McGleenan refuted McIver's suggestion that he has been distracted by his future role going into this campaign and added: “All I can ask of Scotstown is that they go out and play their very, very best. If they do that it will take a hell of a performance from Kilcoo to beat us.”
There's no doubt about that. Scotstown have proven inter-county class in the Hughes brothers, Darren and Kieran, goalkeeper Rory Beggan and forward Shane Carey.
Carey often switches began full and centre-forward with Darren Hughes while Kieran Hughes operates in a roving role between midfield – where he combines with Francis Caulfield and James Turley – and attack.
In defence Damien McArdle has looked comfortable as sweeper while Mark Duffy was handed a man-marking role on Conor McManus.
In terms of personnel and experience there isn't much to choose between the sides. Scotstown have home advantage, but Kilcoo's tenacity and range of scoring options means they start as favourites tomorrow.