GAA Football

'We weren't going back to that well again' - Conor Laverty

Kilcoo's joint captains Conor Laverty and Aidan Branagan lift the Seamus Mac Ferran Cup. Picture by Seamus Loughran

HALF the winning of these things is in the losing of them. For Conor Laverty and Kilcoo, there’d been enough losing.

The Ulster title spent a decade winking at them only to turn on its heel every time they found the courage to step out across the floor.

Many another would have been floored by such repeated rejection, but each winter they’d spruce up, stick their chest out and try again.

The more attempts they had at it, the easier it became to think their time had passed. When Patsy Bradley flicked Darragh O’Hanlon’s stoppage time free on to the bar and over in Newry two years ago, Kilcoo were gone at the preliminary round stage. They failed to win back their Down title, Paul McIver stepped away and the boat seemed to be halfway out to sea.

Yet here they are now, masters of all they survey.

It’s always been strange to have categorised them as an unfortunate bunch.

In longing for what they hadn’t, it was easy to forget what they had.

Formed on December 2, 1916, the club yesterday celebrated its 113th birthday in style.

When it comes to Down championships, they are the most successful club in the county. With 17 senior titles, they stand three clear of Burren.

But Kilcoo had won their first nine between 1917 and 1937, and then didn’t win another for 72 years. They’ve added eight more since 2009 and now they have their Ulster title too.

That’s effectively three generations of footballer, spread three-quarters of a century apart, that have hoovered up the Magpies’ entire cabinet of major silverware.

“For years, we just tried to win a Down league. And then it was trying to win a Down Championship. And then the expectations just grew and grew,” said the visibly emotional, unrestrained Kilcoo joint-captain.

“We probably were getting so close so many times, that pressure built up a bit.

“But this year was just a wee bit different, a wee bit special and it just wasn’t for happening on the day. We weren’t for being beat. We weren’t going back to that well again.

“It’s been a long road. You know yourself, whenever you are talking before the matches it’s all about ‘getting the head down as best you can’, but there’s been a lot of sleepless night, lying in bed awake, waking up the next morning with tears, in bad form for weeks after those defeats.

“It just wasn’t happening [again]. It was a different feel to this week though. Something just different.”

What, exactly, was different?

“It was just different. It was light. The mood was brilliant. It wasn’t spoken about too much. Mickey’s calmness, his coolness. It was a great build up.”

The lightness of it helped Kilcoo escape the pressure that you might have expected them to feel. But their relative struggle en-route to the decider ended up shedding some of that load as the tipsters and bookies turned their favour on Naomh Conaill.

“We never really talked about it too much and we hadn’t read the papers or anything. But the general consensus was that Glenties were the favourites going into the game.

“Probably after beating Gaoth Dobhair and their display against Clontibret, they deserved that and we maybe hadn’t set the world alight.

“But I think this should gain us a lot of respect. Some of the football we played today, particularly our first goal was unbelievable.”

The daintiness of Laverty’s hands and feet were evident in that goal. He comes deep and pops it off to Daryl Branagan, who’s steaming down the middle off his shoulder. From there, it’s just composure and decision-making as they work it for Aidan Branagan to palm into an empty net.

The statistical boffins won’t class it as an assist, but there was no goal without his vision and timing. Laverty scored just a point himself but had a big hand in another 2-5.

At 34, he wasn’t so much thinking about his own last chance as knowing that no-one is ever guaranteed another shot at Ulster.

“That’s always the case. In the first Ulster match against Magherafelt we said in the changing rooms, ‘it is a long way back to here.’ It’s a hard grind from January to August, to get playing Championship, to get into the Championship and then to win your Championship and get out of Down, it is a hard struggle and it was never mentioned.

“We just felt as a group we needed to grasp this opportunity. There was a calmness about us, that we were getting the job done.”

As much as losing provides fuel, winning only opens a gate to something else. Winners are driven by winning more.

For Kilcoo’s senior team, next up is an All-Ireland semi-final against either Dublin’s Ballyboden or Éire Óg of Carlow, who meet this Sunday in the last of the provincial club finals.

But for Laverty, first up is the challenge of managing the club’s minor team as they aim to make it an Ulster double. Having won Down, they start their journey into the province against Killyclogher this weekend.

Standing on the pitch in the aftermath of Kilcoo’s greatest success, Laverty is deadly serious when he says he plans to be out training the minors later the same evening.

A pioneer himself, there’s no mad race to the bar. But in the end, he relents to the young lads and lets them off.

“It’s just… Football is our life and that’s it. All the celebrating and all of that, that can be done afterwards but we have a game in six days’ time and we need to be prepared and ready for it.”

Nothing exemplifies Kilcoo’s manic obsession better.

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