Down and Ulster champions Kilcoo meet Dublin's Ballyboden in battle for All-Ireland final berth
AIB All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship: Kilcoo (Ulster) v Ballyboden St Enda's (Leinster) (today, Kingspan Breffni, 3.30pm)
KILCOO battered on the door for 10 years before they finally got their hands on the Ulster crown.
Now the Magpies get their long-awaited first shot at an All-Ireland semi-final and do you think Mickey Moran, Conor Laverty, the Branagans, the Johnstons and the rest of the panel will see this as ‘bonus territory'?
Not a chance.
This opportunity to get to an All-Ireland final was a decade in the making and, after so many years of blood sweat and tears; Kilcoo's players know they have to seize their chance because it might not come around again.
Only their best will do of course because when you get to this stage you play the very best and Ballyboden St Enda's are certainly up there. The south Dubliners were All-Ireland champions in 2017 and cruised through games in their county and then the Leinster championship on the way here.
They also went unbeaten in the league until Ballymun ended their run in the final last week but Kilcoo won their county league title too and although their form in the run up to the Ulster final against Donegal's Naomh Conaill wasn't as convincing as ‘Boden's, they turned it on in the decider with a superb display and a win that was much more convincing that the final scoreline suggested.
That Ulster final remained in the balance because of Naomh Conaill's two goals near the end of a first half in which they had otherwise been taken to the cleaners. Both goals came from route-one punts into the Kilcoo square and you can bet that Ballyboden will try the same tactic today so the Down champions must keep pressure on the ball around the middle third to cut out the supply.
“The physicality of Ballyboden is renowned,” said Kilcoo assistant-manager Conleith Gilligan.
“One of the things people will tell you when you ask about them is their physicality. They will have the height advantage in a lot of positions and maybe the winning and losing of the game could be there.”
Managed by former Kildare star Anthony Rainbow, Ballyboden will test the Kilcoo full-back line but they are far from one-dimensional. The Dublin champions have the experience of midfield warhorse Michael Darragh Macauley, dual star Conal Keaney (now 37) and wing-back Robbie McDaid while a talented forward line is led by the Basquel brothers, Ryan and Colm, who have wreaked havoc in opposition defences all season. Colm has registered 2-12 in the last for games and Ryan has scored 0-14.
While Ballyboden rely on the Basquels, Kilcoo have a much broader range of scoring options. Eight of the Magpies contributed in the Ulster final when the men from the Mournes broke from deep with pace and punched gaps in the favourites' defence and the new surface in Cavan town should suit their running game today.
“On different days we have had different players step up and get goals or two or three points when we were struggling a wee bit,” said Gilligan.
“It's good to know that you have that and when somebody else is having an off day then maybe another fella will step in. In a game that could be tight that could be very important. If one of our forwards isn't having the best day we can get scores from others areas and that is something we have been able to do all year. We have had scorers from all over the place.”
Both camps exuded a quiet confidence in the build-up. Ballyboden have greater experience at this level but Kilcoo, with their track record of success in the Down championship and the inter-county experience of the likes of Laverty, Paul Devlin and the Johnston brothers Ryan and Jerome in their ranks, have nothing to fear on that count.
“We aren't lacking in confidence but we're not cocky about the thing either,” said Ballyboden selector Finnian Hyland.
“We know that we have to go out and play the game to win it. We're looking forward to it and it's great for the club, especially in the 50th year that we're in an All-Ireland semi-final.
“Let's hope we can push on to the final a fortnight later but let's play the semi-final first.”
Kilcoo should not be intimidated by Dublin opposition. Three years ago their manager Moran guided Slaughtneil to an All-Ireland semi-final win over well-fancied St Vincent's that was underpinned by a trademark tactical masterclass.
With Chrissy McKaigue blotting out Diarmuid Connolly, Moran got his match-ups spot on and today he will dispatch limpet-like man-markers Niall and Aidan Branagan to keep an eye on the Basquels with their brother Aidan a contender to look after Macauley if he starts the game.
Meanwhile, the industry of sweepers Richard and Niall McEvoy gives Darryl Branagan licence to get up in support of the Johnston brothers in an attack that is orchestrated by the vision and skill of Conor Laverty.
Ballyboden will know all about Laverty of course and their defence has conceded just eight points per game on average over their last four matches. With a rearguard that tight and such potent attack, a break or two in Kilcoo's square could put the Dubliners in charge in this game. They start as favourites but if Kilcoo reproduce the attacking energy of their Ulster final display it could get very interesting at Kingspan Breffni.