GAA Football

Clonduff win low-key derby clash with Kilcoo as football returns

Clonduff's Ross Carr out jumps Kilcoo's Eugene Branagan during last night's Down league clash in Hilltown. Picture by Hugh Russell
From Neil Loughran at Páirc Cluain Daimh

O'Neills Down ACFL Division 1A: Clonduff 1-8 Kilcoo 0-10

THERE was no spectators, no chanting, and nothing like the intensity you normally expect from a Clonduff-Kilcoo encounter but, for once in a game between these rivals, the final outcome felt incidental.

Clonduff got their league campaign off to a winning start by the narrowest of margins, but returning to action was always going to be the only story in town.

Yet while it was great to be back up and running, you can’t help but wonder for how long it will last. Last night’s games were played out against a backdrop of a positive Covid-19 test at another Down club, Atticall, earlier in the week, while 10 Derry clubs have suspended GAA activity due to the discovery of cases in the community in recent days.

For communities like Hilltown and Kilcoo, it is almost impossible to imagine how strange the past four months have been. Gaelic Games are at the centre of everything, and the thought of a return to life without it is almost too much to bear.

You don’t need to look too hard for evidence. On the left hand pitch as you walk down into Páirc Cluain Daimh, some of Clonduff’s U11 hurlers are being put through their paces. The field in front of the clubhouse is being used by the U11 ladies’ footballers an hour before the game gets under way.

Club officials are marshalling sanitising stations at the club gates and spraying clusters of balls to ensure all protocols are adhered to, while players laugh and chat as they make their way down the hill.

“Any chance of a smile lads,” shouts one of the waiting photographers as they arrive.

“Ach now,” comes Barry O’Hagan’s instant retort, “I haven’t had my teeth whitened”.

Some of the Clonduff crew had so little distance to walk they didn’t even dispense with the boots for the short journey, the familiar sound of studs on concrete one of many reminders throughout the evening of just how much you’ve missed this.

The sight of Kilcoo arriving to the sound of silence is an odd one. Usually when Kilcoo travel, the whole of Kilcoo travels. In every respect, last night was a bit different from their last competitive game six months ago.

Then, a campaign that saw the Magpies crowned Down champions once more, and Ulster kingpins for the first time ever, ended in All-Ireland final defeat to Corofin.

They won’t get to defend the Seamus MacFerran Cup this year, while Andy Merrigan will reside with the all-conquering Galway men for another year – at least. But, considering how dire the prognosis appeared for any kind of return to action in 2020 just two short months ago, it was just good to get back out.

Traditionally there has been little love lost between these two familiar foes, but this game represented something a bit more significant than a chance to settle old scores. Kilcoo started without a host of the players who helped them celebrate a season to remember, with Martin McCourt, Aaron Branagan, Paul Devlin and Dylan Ward all absent while Conor Laverty came on as a second half sub.

And it was Clonduff who shook off the cobwebs the quickest when Barry O’Hagan found the back of the Kilcoo net after just 70 seconds, palming to the net after good work from Charlie and Aidan Carr before Rian Brannigan popped off to leave O’Hagan with a simple finish.

Further scores for Eamon Brown and Aidan Brown gave the Yellas a bit of breathing room as the makeshift Magpies struggled to find their way early on.

The first flashpoint came 13 minutes in when Justin Clarke caught Clonduff ’keeper Neil Trainor late but it fizzled out fairly quickly, referee Brendan Rice calling a water break just as temperatures were beginning to soar.

A series of frees kept Kilcoo in touch as the half wore on, with Jerome Johnston and goalkeeper Niall Kane finding the target. The Clonduff management questioned the time taken before Kane steadied himself to slot over.

“Boys have done shorter furlough,” noted one member of the local press pack.

The Magpies closed the gap as the break, a Kane free the last score of the half, but Clonduff still led by three at half-time.

Kilcoo, as they tend to do, slowly but surely ate away at that lead, and when Clonduff lost Ruairi Lively to a second yellow card midway through the second half, it was the Magpies who were trying to turn the screw.

A straight red for Shealan Johnston evened it up and the Yellas held on for the win. A few claps greeted a result that would, in normal circumstances, be celebrated in some style. It’s sure to be a different story whenever Kilcoo and Clonduff next meet.

Whenever that may be.

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