GAA Football

Kilcoo forward Jerome Johnston out to rip up the script in All-Ireland final against Corofin

Kilcoo forward Jerome Johnston in action against Derrygonnelly in the Ulster semi-final.
Pic Philip Walsh
Andy Watters

JEROME Johnston played at Croke Park twice before and lost there twice before. If you go by the bookies’ odds, the Kilcoo forward will walk off disappointed again on Sunday just like he did in 2015 when Down lost the Division Two final to Roscommon and in 2017 when Monaghan knocked the Mournemen out in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

Johnston scored three points against Monaghan and if he registers the same again on Sunday you get the feeling that his beloved Magpies won’t be a million miles away from causing an upset against clear favourites Corofin.

To do that they’ll need to level-up and continue the upward momentum that saw them deservedly beat Naomh Conaill (in the Ulster final) and Ballyboden (in the All-Ireland semis).

St Louis Grammar School teacher Johnston makes no secret of his admiration for the Galway outfit that has been managed to back-to-back titles by home grown bainisteoir Kevin O’Brien.

“They deserve that praise because of what they’ve achieved over the last number of years,” he says.

“They’ve been exceptional and they deserve that title of being the best club team there’s ever been. Their record speaks for itself.

“Croke Park has served them well over the last couple of years with some of the performances they have put in so they’ll enjoy getting there and there have been times when they have totally dominated teams in Croke Park.

“They are a level up from anyone in Ireland and they have proven that over the last number of years.

“They have been a bit of a wrecking ball for anyone that has come near them and I think everybody has been in awe of some of the football they’ve played.

“They have been super to watch and some of the moves they’ve put together are as good as you’d see at any level of Gaelic football.”

You won’t find many who will argue with that but, while they are all due respect, Kilcoo will not fear their high-profile opponents. There are vast reserves of experience in this Mickey Moran-managed side and Johnston, his brother Ryan, Conor Laverty, Aidan Branagan and Paul Devlin are among the players with inter-county experience in a team of proven winners.

“We’ve worked hard,” he says.

“We’ve put a lot of work in, more than in previous years. We’ve put a bit more in this year so we’ll go out and we’re going to try but there’s no doubt there’s a massive challenge ahead.”

To an extent, Johnston knows what it’s like to be an All-Ireland champion. Getting on for 14 years ago now, the Kilcoo forward was part of the Magpies side that won the Feile U14 title. Those players slotted into a team that was already matching the best sides in the Mourne county.

“My da (Jerome) was manager,” he recalls.

“Mickey McClean was with him and Conor (Laverty), Aidan (Branagan) and Donal Kane were there as well. At that time those boys would have been 20-21 and just breaking into the senior panel.

“A lot of the teams we beat in that competition were very big fellas, they were huge, but it was good because we were playing the best from all over Ireland. We played Dublin and Cork and then in the semi-final we beat Omagh and in the final we beat Cellbridge from Kildare and a couple of their players (Cian Bolger and Conor Masterson) are playing soccer in England now.

“It was a good achievement and it’s something we will always remember. Looking back on it now you appreciate it more – to be the best team in Ireland at U14 was nice.

“And when we were breaking into the team, the seniors were doing great work as well – they had just won their first Down championship in 72 years. Kilcoo put a lot of emphasis on the youth which has served the club well and we were lucky that we were getting a lot of success as we were coming and that is down to the men who were putting that work in with us since we were six or seven.”

On Sunday he knows that Down and Ulster gaels will be cheering on his side as they bid to rip up the script and deny Corofin the three in-a-row that some observers feel is their destiny. Kilcoo are the first club since Burren in 1988 and only the third in history (Bryansford reached the 1971 final) to make it to this stage.

“We’re representing Down,” said Johnston.

“That’s the championship we play in every year and no matter who comes out of it you get behind them.

“At different times the Down championship hasn’t go the respect it deserved, it didn’t get the same respect as some of the other county championships in Ulster which is hard to see because there are a number of teams in Down that are quality teams.

“I know that on the couple of occasions that Slaughtneil or Crossmaglen have beat us, we’ve got behind them because the better the team that beat you does the better it looks on you.”

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GAA Football