Sink or swim for Kilcoo as Corofin aim for historic All-Ireland three in-a-row
All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship final: Corofin (Galway/Connacht) v Kilcoo (Down/Ulster) (tomorrow, Croke Park, 4pm, live on TG4)
By Andy Watters
THERE'S nothing like taking on arguably the best club team ever to sharpen a player's focus and Kilcoo will know it's sink or swim for them at Croke Park tomorrow.
Swim, and they are in the deep end with three in-a-row chasing sharks, sink and this could be a chastening experience for the Magpies.
But it'll be a surprise if they sink.
There are sure to be nerves in the dressingroom and Kilcoo will need to keep a lid on them and produce their absolute best on the biggest stage in the biggest game of their lives.
Serial Down champions, the Magpies won their first, long-awaited Ulster title a month ago and are now thrust into the Croke Park spotlight to trade punches with Corofin who travel east from their Galway stronghold hailed by many as the greatest club team ever to play the game.
Whether they are or not is a matter of opinion but the achievements of Kevin O'Brien's side are not. With seven Galway titles won on-the-spin and four consecutive Connacht championships behind them, O'Brien's men chase a ground-breaking three All-Irelands in-a-row tomorrow.
They are the clear favourites with the bookies and that is no surprise given that their unbeaten run in championship football stretches back almost three years to an All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dr Croke's on February 11, 2017.
It has been a mixture of miserly defence and devastating attacking spells that got them through their last three games after they saw off neighbours Tuam Stars in a Galway Championship final replay.
They play an attractive brand of kicking football and can produce meticulous, top-drawer moves and scores but, for all that, they haven't exactly been running riot in attack in this campaign. Of course heavy pitches have contributed and the Croke Park surface will suit them better but Kilcoo will not be intimidated by their opponents' record of 11 scores a game (0-11, 1-10, 1-10 and 1-10) in their last four outings.
Jason Leonard is the top scorer with 11 points and fleet-footed Galway star Gary Sice (0-10) is the only other forward in double-figures but Kevin O'Brien's side is packed with potential match-winners.
Ian Burke hadn't scored in four outings until he posted two points against Nemo. The 2018 Allstar is quick and skilful and has the creative ability to unlock Kilcoo's defence and play in Martin and Michael Farragher who are both good finishers. Pony-tailed Kieran Molloy is a regular contributor from half-back while Liam Silke – nephew of Galway All-Ireland-winning skipper Ray – is a constant threat breaking from deep.
The defensive lynchpin will, as ever, be Kieran Fitzgerald. The affable Garda played at corner-back when Galway won their last All-Ireland in 2001 and, approaching 19 years later, he remains a stabilising force in front of goalkeeper Bernard Power who has range and accuracy in his kick-outs.
All-in-all, this is a very dangerous, well-drilled outfit and, as their defensive record of no goals and the concession of around eight points a game over their last four wins illustrates, nobody shirks their defensive duties.
But Kilcoo go into the final with confidence and, after their displays against Naomh Conaill (Ulster final) and Ballyboden (All-Ireland semi-final), there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they will give a good account of themselves against this Galway juggernaut.
Yes, this is the club's first appearance at Croke Park but there is plenty of know-how in the Magpies' ranks. Confident youngsters like Ryan McEvoy, goalkeeper Martin McCourt and Shealan Johnston have revitalised the team but the vast majority of Mickey Moran's players were veterans of Down successes and Ulster near-misses before December's breakthrough win.
The likes of Conor Laverty, Aidan Branagan, Paul Devlin and the Johnston brothers Ryan and Jerome are, or were, inter-county regulars and Laverty and Branagan both represented Down in the 2010 All-Ireland final against Cork.
Aidan, the oldest of the five Branagans, has been immense at midfield and his brothers Darryl (a goal-scorer in the last two games) and Eugene have also been outstanding.
Talismanic forward Conor Laverty has the one-touch creativity, ambition and industry to unlock the tightest of defences and he'll play as an inside forward beside Jerome Johnston, who looked in great form against Ballyboden.
Behind those two, Ryan Johnston has been playing the football of his life. Johnston was always a capable ball-carrier and he has added direct purpose and an end product to his work. His goal against Ballyboden turned the game Kilcoo's way and, although they rode their luck in the closing stages, they fully deserved their win.
And then there is Moran. The Maghera native has amassed a vast reservoir of experience in spells at club and county sides including Derry, Mayo and, most recently, Slaughtneil. He was the Slaughtneil manager when Corofin won their first All-Ireland and 10 of the men who starred for the Galway champions on St Patrick's Day in 2015 are in line to start tomorrow.
He'll relish having another crack at the Connacht kingpins and an early score for his side would be worth its weight in gold but it'll be tight and tense in the opening stages.
Kilcoo have improved as this campaign has gone on and have shown a very handy knack of coming out on top in tight games and they can bare their teeth and scrap it out or play football, whatever it takes.
History beckons for Corofin and if the Connacht men reproduce their awesome performances against Nemo Rangers (2018) and Dr Crokes last year, then it's hard to look past them clinching that historic hat-trick.
But the weight of expectation means all the pressure is on them and, if they struggle to deal with it, Kilcoo have it in them to cause a shock tomorrow.
THEIR ethos is to go on the attack and win and with so much experience in their ranks, the Corofin players know the gameplan off by heart.
They'll look to utilise their famed kicking game and stretch the Kilcoo defence in the wide-open spaces of Croke Park and then send Kieran Molloy, Micheal Lundy, Gary Sice, the Farraghers etc, etc through the middle to do damage.
The Galway side play with six genuine forwards and they'll use the ball quickly to negate Kilcoo's press ensuring they aren't smothered and hounded by the Ulster champions' relentless workrate.
Ronan Steed and Galway dual star Daithi Burke are powerhouses in midfield and manager Kevin O'Brien will be confident that they can secure the primary possession to start wave after wave of attacks
IN the last two games, Mickey Moran got his match-ups spot on and was able to cancel out the threat of the opposition's marquee players.
He has also shown remarkable flexibility in his gameplan. Early on in the All-Ireland semi-final, Kilcoo went man-on-man against the much-vaunted Ballyboden forward line and, although they were tested, they coped with Conal Keaney and the Basquel brothers comfortably enough because they put intense pressure on the supply coming in from the middle third of the field.
A turnover and a lightning break led to Ryan Johnston's goal and after it they were able to reassign Niall McEvoy to a sweeping role, pack their defence and choke the life out of the 'Boden attack.
In Paul Devlin they have a playmaker capable of getting on the ball around middle and kicking long to the willing Laverty who will break out from the inside line and look to bring the likes of Dylan Ward, Ryan Johnston and the marauding Branagans into the game.
The Magpies' first job is to deny Corofin the lightning start they enjoyed against Nemo and then stay in the game until the final quarter.
Gary Sice (Corofin) v Daryl Branagan (Kilcoo)
THERE are so many potentially crucial battles in this final but the contest between Sice and Kilcoo's ‘Dabs' could decide this issue.
Branagan broke forward from defence to score crucial goals against Naomh Conaill and Ballyboden and another one tomorrow could have a massive impact on this game.
But he will need to think ‘defence first' against Sice and will have to be wary of breaking forward and losing the skilful Galway star who scored 1-5 in last year's final and 1-4 the year before.
On the flip side, Sice will need to keep a very careful eye on Branagan who is quick and clever and has a knack of timing attacking runs to perfection.
Key Man (Kilcoo)
FORMER Down star Laverty has been at the epicentre of so much of Kilcoo's attacking success this season. He made his senior debut for his club way back in 2003 and uses all that experience in his unselfish roving, playmaking role for the Magpies.
He has been a goal-maker right the way through Kilcoo's campaign and was the architect of Ryan Johnston's crucial ‘major' in the semi-final. He will probably have Liam Silke, Corofin's best man-marker, for company tomorrow.
LIKE Laverty, Burke is a pocket rocket and, also like the Down man, he has the ability to change the game in the blink of an eye. A two-footed schemer, he can take scores when he has to or drop deep and kick the ball long and accurately to Jason Leonard and the Farraghers.
Burke has been instrumental in all three of Corofin's All-Ireland titles. Niall Branagan could be assigned the task of shutting him down and he'll know that if Burke sees enough of the ball tomorrow, Kilcoo will have a job on their hands.
Paths to the final
All-Ireland semi-final: Corofin 1-10 Nemo Rangers 0-7
Connacht final: Corofin 1-10 Padraig Pearses 0-7
Connacht semi-final: Corofin 1-10 Ballintubber 0-11
Galway final replay: Corofin 0-11 Tuam Stars 0-8
Galway final: Corofin 0-15 Tuam Stars 2-9
All-Ireland semi-final: Kilcoo 2-8 Ballyboden St Enda's 0-11
Ulster final: Kilcoo 2-11 Naomh Conaill 2-9
Ulster semi-final: Kilcoo 1-8 Derrygonnelly Harps 0-9
Ulster quarter-final: Kilcoo 1-11 Magherafelt 0-9
Down final: Kilcoo 1-12 Warrenpoint 0-14
Who's the ref?
Conor Lane (Cork)
THIS is the second All-Ireland club final for the vastly-experienced Cork whistler who took charge of the Ballyboden versus Castlebar Mitchells decider in 2016.
Since then Lane has officiated in three All-Ireland SFC finals. An unfussy official who does his best to let the game flow, he took charge of Dublin v Mayo (2016), Dublin v Tyrone (2018) and last year's Dublin-Kerry replay.
Have a punt: Ryan Johnston, first goalscorer 16/1
It'll be dry in Dublin tomorrow but very cold, so wrap up warm.