GAA Football

Same world, different world for Gilligan

Eighteen years ago, Conleith Gilligan was making a name for himself by guiding Ballinderry to an All-Ireland club title. Now he stands alongside Mickey Moran and Paul Devlin on the line with Kilcoo as they prepare to take on the might of Corofin. Cahair O'Kane writes…

Conleith Gilligan in action for Ballinderry against Kilcoo in 2013. He won an All-Ireland club title with the Shamrocks in 2002, and is now searching for one as Kilcoo's coach.

IN a world before social media, Conleith Gilligan takes a ball off Paul Wilson. Going away from goal, out towards the right wing on his right foot, he lets fly.

It is a score, in so many ways, reminiscent of Conor McManus’ famous effort in Healy Park two summers ago. Yet it carried a lot more weight.

Ballinderry had just found their groove against Nemo Rangers thanks to Declan Bateson’s palmed goal. In the unique surroundings of Thurles, they would go on to score 2-8 of their 2-9 from play, and Gilligan would have had a hand in another 1-4 beyond that outstanding solitary point.

It’s hard to believe that will be 18 years ago in March, the day the Shamrocks conquered the country.

Right up until August 2018, he continued to toil in the white and blue. He was still Derry club football’s top scorer in 2018.

But he’d dipped his toes in coaching too, right back as far as 2010 when he helped Naomh Conaill to a Donegal title. Since then he’s done a bit in Maghery, helped Coalisland to a Tyrone final and has more recently been involved with Derry’s younger development squad setups.

When Mickey Moran rang him last October, it came out of the blue. Mickey had been approached by Kilcoo, and he wanted Gilligan to go along with him and Paul Devlin.

An All-Ireland club final looked a million miles away for a team that had lost its crown in Down. And at times through the year, it didn’t look a pile closer.

“The first round against An Riocht, we found ourselves two points down at half-time on a real bad night in Burren, and we ground out a result,” says the former Derry forward, who turned 40 just before Christmas.

“Rostrevor, the drawn game with Burren, the semi-final, the final were one-point games, Magherafelt, Derrygonnelly, Glenties all a couple of points.

“All the games, at some point in them we’ve had to do something extra special to see it through, whether it’s a goal or a block or someone winning a free out. That’s testament to the players, that in the big important moments of games, they’ve been able to answer the question.”

And so, almost two decades after he collected his own All-Ireland club title as a player, he will stand pitchside in Croke Park and try to find a way to turn the tables again.

His Ballinderry side were similarly unfancied against the Cork and Munster heavyweights, but they had the mixture of fire and quality to see off a Nemo team that played in three straight finals, bouncing back from two defeats to get over the line in 2003.

But the big nemesis for Ballinderry during his playing days was the Crossmaglen team that ruled Ulster with an iron fist. Time and again, including twice in finals, the Armagh kingpins squeezed over the line.

This Corofin team have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath. They are heading to Croke Park next Sunday looking to complete the three-in-a-row, and win the Andy Merrigan Cup for the fourth time in six years.

While Gilligan says it would “be unfair on Crossmaglen” to judge them against Corofin given how football has changed, he believes the Galway men have set new benchmarks in so many different areas of their game.

“They’ve been incredible and Croke Park seems to have been the place where they save their very best performances. There are just so many fires to put out.

“All six forwards, plus the three they normally bring on to finish the game out, are exceptional. Add into their ability to score that they just work so hard, they’re so good on the ball, they kick really well – when they’re asking so many questions all the time, they’ll be very difficult to pin down. That’s the challenge for us come the 19th.

“When you have forwards like [Gary] Sice, able to kick the ball and do what they do, but then track a man 50 yards and put in a tackle and then kick again… If you were designing a football team, that’s how you would design them.

“Has there ever been a better club team than Corofin?

“It’d be very unfair to Crossmaglen to judge them on that because football is very different now. Over a couple of decades, Crossmaglen were the standard bearers and they’ve come back again. Their ability to bounce back after a defeat was incredible.

“This Corofin team, to go on the run they’ve went on, and it being almost the same team right through barring a couple of changes does set them apart as being very different.

“It’s a massive challenge but brilliant for Kilcoo to go down there and test themselves against the very best. To be the best, you have to beat possibly the best club team ever.”

The Magpies trained as normal through the Christmas break, sticking to their usual training days and going right over the holidays, albeit avoiding Christmas day itself.

It’s as if all the experience he has of trying to manage the post-Ulster break is negated by the change in dates away from the traditional St Patrick’s Day berth.

“You’ve no time to kill or time to fill,” says Gilligan.

Mickey Moran and Conleith Gilligan, along with Paul Devlin, have worked wonders with Down champions Kilcoo. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“You’re not having to play pointless challenge matches or give players a week or two off. From our perspective, it’s been very good because we’ve won [against Ballyboden].

“If we’d been beat, you might have looked at the break and maybe thought you could have done with an extra week or two.”

Where the Kilcoo management team’s experience will be more relevant is in Mickey Moran’s duel with Corofin four years ago, when he was manager of Slaughtneil.

They were on their first time out of Ulster, only their second time out of Derry, but found their attempts to play a running game completely suffocated by the side then managed by Stephen Rochford.

Kevin O’Brien took over and has continued to bring Corofin success. Ten of their team that started in 2015 will begin tomorrow week’s game. Their continuity and consistency have been remarkable.

“The ability Mickey has, he’s able to relate his experiences in the best possible way to players, and they react to that,” says Gilligan.

“Knowing what Mickey knows now, the pitfalls, it’s massive for the other boys that they can bounce off him in that regard.”

Conleith Gilligan is the man in the Kilcoo corner with the experience of winning an All-Ireland club final. Don’t underestimate that.

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