Derrygonnelly Harps take on Kilcoo in Ulster semi-final showdown
Ulster club SFC semi-final: Derrygonnelly (Fermanagh) v Kilcoo (Down) (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 3pm)
DERRYGONNELLY began this campaign – their fifth consecutive foray into Ulster – with a single win behind them so perhaps it’s not surprising that they’ve been tipped to lose twice already.
On both occasions they defied the tipsters, first with a convincing win over Antrim champions Cargin and then with a thrilling penalty shoot-out success against Tyrone’s Trillick, reckoned for reason by some to be the team to beat in Ulster this year.
Now here they are in their first-ever Ulster semi-final, a game away from a provincial decider and, guess what, they’re going to be underdogs once again.
In the other corner tomorrow is a Kilcoo side that have reached this stage four times since 2009 and won two of those semi-finals but lost finals in 2012 (against Crossmaglen) and 2017 (against Slaughtneil). Still craving that elusive first Ulster title, they go into this game on the back of an impressive performance against Magherafelt a fortnight ago.
The Derry champions gave as good as they’d got in the first half but it was a five-minute spell of 1-2 early in the second half that decided the match. Jerome Johnston got the goal and Magherafelt were never able to bridge the six-point gap.
At the epicentre of Kilcoo’s attacking thrusts in the Magherafelt game was evergreen forward Conor Laverty. The Magpies’ talisman scored two points himself and was involved in the goal and several other scores with defence splitting passes.
Unselfish, combative, creative and still full of clever running, former Down star Laverty will be involved in the Monaghan backroom team next season and there are unconfirmed rumours that this might be his last in his beloved black and white jersey.
If that is the case then he deserves to go out on a high but he’ll be well aware that ‘deserves’ counts for absolutely nothing at this stage of the championship. Kilcoo will have to work for everything tomorrow but they are always prepared to do that.
New goalkeeper Michael McShane is a superb shot-stopper and in front of him Niall McEvoy has operated as full-time sweeper in a packed defence that includes Aaron and Aidan Branagan working hard as man-markers.
Daryl Branagan and Richard McEvoy make a mobile midfield pair who are both capable of taking a score and the Magpies field as good an attacking line-up as there is in the competition. Laverty is the catalyst for so much of their good work while Eugene Branagan was also superb against Magherafelt, Jerome and Ryan Johnston bring immense experience to the side as does their Down county colleague Paul Devlin, who is a dependable free-taker. Dylan Ward can be a match-winner on his day and Ceilum Laverty, younger brother of Conor, could return from injury tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Derrygonnelly have their aces too. The Harps – five in-a-row champions in Fermanagh this year – went toe-to-toe from the start in their battle with Trillick at Brewster Park.
The Tyrone men led by three with eight minutes to go but Derrygonnelly clawed their way back into it and a late free from ice-cool Conall Jones forced extra-time. With the sides still locked together after it, Jones scored in the penalty shoot-out and again in sudden-death and the Erne champions won 6-5 when Lee Brennan hit the post with Trillick’s sixth attempt.
“There were two times the game could have been gone from us but we didn’t lose the plot, we didn’t allow ourselves to get pushed off the edge of the cliff and we’ll draw a lot from that,” said joint manager Sean Flanagan this week.
Composed finisher Conall Jones landed seven points during the quarter-final and with Garvan (0-6) and midfielder Ryan (0-3) supplying 10 more, the Jones’s accounted for 0-16 of Derrygonnelly’s 1-17 on the day.
Fermanagh skipper Ryan Jones has forged a good understanding with Stephen McGullion in midfield where the hard-working Kevin Cassidy, another evergreen forward, hoovers up breaks in front of an experienced defence that is well-marshalled by experienced full-back Tiarnan Daly.
No Fermanagh club has ever won this competition and only three – Enniskillen Gaels in 1999 and 2002 and Roslea Shamrocks (1982) have made the final. Flanagan senses that his men stand close to making history.
“There’s a real ambition in our group,” he said.
“We’ve had a level of exposure to Ulster now, this is our fifth year in-a-row, our eighth year in total. “We’ve had a few disappointments in those years but that’s maybe made us keener now we’re in a position to do something that we haven’t done before.”
Discount Derrygonnelly at your peril, the Fermanagh side is focussed and fit and packed with fine footballers. Against them is a Kilcoo outfit the boasts and array of athletic, powerful and smart players. They have knowhow in abundance and serious pace on the counterattack too and that makes them favourites to reach the final.