"We'll train harder than ever and hopefully, you never know, we might be in this position again,” says Tyrone All-Ireland winner Conn Kilpatrick
CONN Kilpatrick shook his head and smiled as he said: “It’s just unbelievable to be an All-Ireland champion…” The reality will take a while to sink in but, when it does, it will never leave him – he’ll always be an All-Ireland winner now.
Like the rest of his Tyrone squad, the Edendork midfielder earned every scintilla of the Celtic Cross he’ll always hold dear and alongside Brian Kennedy he came of age in the Red Hands’ engineroom against Mayo last Saturday.
“It was brutal, a tough task but thank God we got over the line,” he said after Tyrone had secured their fourth All-Ireland title.
“We’ve come through the wars. In Ulster the Cavan game was tight, Donegal was a step up and Monaghan was another step up at Croke Park.
“Then Kerry… Obviously everybody knows the League result down there but we just knew that we had it (the beating of them) in our locker. Thank God we got over the line against Mayo because, again, they are a great side and we knew the tenacity and determination they would bring. We had to dig deep and now it’s just unbelievable to be an All-Ireland champion.”
Matthew Ruane was sent off after swinging a punch at Kilpatrick in the closing stages of the final. Maybe it’s cold comfort for the Tyrone man, but the digs Ruane threw were borne out of the frustration of being outplayed by a man he was expected to dominate.
As Saturday’s final progressed, Kilpatrick looked increasingly at home. He was composed and clever on the ball and his superb catch, turn and pass from clubmate Niall Morgan’s kick-out opened up the Mayo defence in the move that led to Darren McCurry’s second goal.
He admits he’d found it hard to count down the minutes between the semi-final and final but when the day came, he was ready.
“I just couldn’t wait for the two weeks’ to be over and to get to game day,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be a bad sleeper, there were no sleepless nights but the build-up was unbelievable, everybody got behind us in Tyrone – everywhere you went the flags were up and I had people ringing me and texting to wish me well.
“I didn’t reply to them all but I appreciated them all and we’re all grateful for all the support.”
Back in the noughties, Tyrone’s style came in for plenty of begrudging criticism but purists must have been drooling over the return to the classic midfield pairing of Kilpatrick and Kennedy. Goalkeeper Morgan kicked long against Kerry but Tyrone lost the battle for break ball. On Saturday Kennedy and Kilpatrick ruled the Croke Park skies.
“We knew we had a big task on with Ruane and Loftus and Diarmuid O’Connor down the middle – they’ve been immense all year for Mayo,” says Kilpatrick whose dad Adrian was an All-Ireland U21 winner with Tyrone.
“But we knew that if we brought our A-game we could challenge them at least. They have been around longer than we have but we’re growing in our midfield partnership and hopefully it continues for a long time.
“We’ve had serious battles all year. We’ve looked at each other and we’ve had quite a few talks and said: ‘Look, we’re playing for Tyrone for a reason and we’re happy to be in this position’.
“We got the backing from the management over this Championship period and we know that our midfield is strong and it was proven in the final. We did very well and we handled their boys well but they put up an immense fight and the whole team put in a great effort.
“The boys we’ve played against all year – David Moran (Kerry), Loftus, Ruane, O’Shea… They are all boys we have looked up to when we weren’t even in the Tyrone panel. So it’s great to be out on the field alongside those boys and competing at the top level.”
He didn’t relax until the final whistle was blown and says he thought referee Joe McQuillan was “never going to blow it up” in the agonising closing stages.
“You never know what’s going to happen in this game,” he said.
“They could score and then get the kick-out and score another one so you never take anything for granted. You have to play to the whistle all the time and I think that’s what we did.”
At the start of the season, Tyrone weren’t favourites to win Ulster nevermind the All-Ireland. But Kilpatrick says the Red Hands will be determined to kick on from Saturday’s success in the future. “We’re All-Ireland champions and it’s a great feeling,” he said.
“We’ll get back to the drawing board in a month or two and we know there’s work to do. We’ll train harder than ever and hopefully, you never know, we might be in this position again.”