Conor Laverty and Conleith Gilligan - from friendship forged in Kilcoo to date with destiny in Clones

Pair on opposite sides as Down and Armagh clash on Saturday

Conleith Gilligan says Conor Laverty is the right man for Down
Conleith Gilligan says Conor Laverty is the right man for Down

WHETHER it’s men who went to school together at St Colman’s College or Abbey CBS, or families whose connections straddle the county border, links between Down and Armagh are never too hard to find.

Take Saturday night’s game in Clones even. Oisin and Rian O’Neill, as well as county team-mate Conor O’Neill, all went to St Colman’s.

Indeed Rian and Crossmaglen club-mate Cian McConville were part of the team that reached the 2017 MacRory Cup final alongside Down pair Peter Fegan and Finn McElroy.

Two years ago Armagh back Paddy Burns transferred from his native Forkhill to Burren, having married Orla McKay, whose uncle Pat was an All-Ireland winner with the St Mary’s during their St Mary’s 1980s heyday.

At St Tiernach’s Park, he will come up against club-mates Fegan, Odhran Murdock, Ryan Magill, Liam Kerr and Danny Magill.

“I’ve marked Liam Kerr a couple of times in friendlies against Down in the past,” he smiled after Burren’s Down semi-final win over Glenn last October, “so it’s nice to be in the same team as him for once, and not have to run after him...”

In Kieran McGeeney’s backroom team, former Orchard captain Ciaran McKeever was manager of Mayobridge for three years, from 2019-2021, and has a deep knowledge of the club scene in Armagh’s neighbouring county.

Then there’s Conleith Gilligan. He didn’t go to school with anybody lining out on Saturday, has no skin in a rivalry that has reached heady heights in years gone by, but has made an indelible imprint on many involved with the current Down panel – none moreso than Mourne County boss Conor Laverty.

And yet, until four-and-a-half years ago, the pair didn’t know each other. Well, not beyond being aware of who the other was, and sharing the same pitch when Kilcoo and Ballinderry met in the 2013 Ulster club semi-final.

Yet Laverty, who would always have studied the work of fellow forwards throughout Ulster and beyond, had been a fan from afar.

Indeed, when Gilligan rocked up alongside Richie Thornton as part of Mickey Moran’s Magpies management team in 2019, there were playful suspicions around Kilcoo that the naming of Laverty’s second eldest – Conlaoch - had been a nod to the former Derry sharp-shooter.

The arrival of that trio marked the beginning of a journey that would lead Kilcoo to the ultimate prize, with All-Ireland glory following back-to-back Ulsters.

With six years separating them in age, Laverty (now 38) and Gilligan (now 44) shared plenty of similar experiences, and plenty of the same opponents, at club and county level. With Laverty, alongside Aidan Branagan, the link between management and players, so their bond grew.

Circumstances played a part there too. Often Gilligan’s job as a roving sales development manager with Pilgrim’s Food Masters, formerly Kerry Group, would have him in the area before training commenced.

On those days, he would stop in with Laverty – whose house then was the first on the lane up to Pairc Eoghan Rua – for a cup of tea and a chat, often arriving with bits and bobs for Laverty’s young family.

On the evenings he was early enough, Gilligan would often take Laverty’s eldest son Setanta down to the pitch and do some kicking.

And when it came to plotting how to get the best from Kilcoo, they were thick as thieves – contrasting personalities in some respects, but working in harmony under Moran’s leadership.

“I would see them as different types of characters,” says club stalwart Roger Morgan.

“Conleith could talk for Ireland, on nearly any subject, whereas Conor would be football-mad. If he’s going to talk to you it’s going to be about football – 90 per cent football, maybe the other 10 per cent would be sheep!”

“I’ve never, ever seen ‘Deets’ have a bad day,” says Laverty.

“There was nights going to training, you maybe weren’t feeling it, and he would’ve been bouncing over straight away... you’d have drawn energy out of it.”

Yet, as much as Gilligan’s infectious personality spread throughout the club, another side would emerge when the occasion demanded. The same applies to Laverty, that winning mentality always shimmering below the surface in both men.

And, with Laverty still fit to play his part on the field, management’s appreciation of his input increased with each day that passed.

“Conor always makes really good decisions on the field,” said Gilligan, speaking in 2022, “more often than not, he will sacrifice his own game for what’s right for other people.

“That’s a very rare trait, especially for forwards because a forward’s role is generally to get scores and headlines.”

Off the field, Gilligan was in awe of Laverty’s overall commitment to Kilcoo, operating as a de facto coaching officer for the club while, at the time, travelling to Dublin for his role with Trinity College, coaching the county U20s, as well as farming and raising a young family.

Becoming Down senior manager has since been thrown into the mix.

The pair would still be in contact most weeks, though that is unlikely to have been the case in the build up to Saturday’s semi-final. Perhaps not in the days that follow either.

After all, having taken charge of Kilcoo alongside Thornton once Moran stepped away, Gilligan knows the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of so many of Laverty’s Down panel.

Yet, regardless of what unfolds in Clones, the friendship forged on the way to lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup will always remain.

“He’s a brilliant, brilliant man... a lovely fella, that’s the truth, and someone I have a great deal of respect for,” says Laverty.

“Honestly, I couldn’t speak higher of him, and I wish ‘Deets’ well in everything that he does – maybe just not this Saturday.”