Kerr absence could prove costly as Burren aim to dethrone Kilcoo
Morgan Fuels Down SFC final: St Mary's, Burren v Eoghan Rua, Kilcoo (tomorrow, Pairc Esler, 3pm – live stream on Down GAA TV)
THE latest instalment of a heavyweight rivalry that has dominated Down football for over a decade will be played out at Pairc Esler tomorrow – with indifferent form and injuries to key men making an already intriguing battle even tougher to call.
Not since 2008 has the Frank O'Hare Cup resided anywhere other than Burren or Kilcoo, with the Magpies wrestling control from their rivals in the early part of the last decade.
The fact that Jim McCorry - who helped cement that early superiority with a hat-trick of title triumphs between 2012 and 2014 – is now in charge of Burren adds a little extra spice, as if it were needed, to proceedings.
Few know what makes the Magpies tick better than McCorry.
Tomorrow will be Kilcoo's 10th straight final appearance, though their last decider date with Burren saw the St Mary's dash dreams of a magnificent seven in-a-row in 2018 - Donal O'Hare's 2-5 and a supreme display of long range free-taking from goalkeeper Cathal Murdock helping spread some sunshine after years in the shadows.
Typically, Kilcoo would come back even stronger. Not only did they gain revenge over Burren on the way to regaining their crown, the Magpies – now under the charge of Derry men Mickey Moran and Conleith Gilligan – finally scaled the summit in Ulster, going on to reach the All-Ireland final.
After a Covid-hit 2020 put provincial competitions on ice, they remain the last club to land the Seamus MacFerran Cup. Knowing their season would go no further, last year's Down championship celebrations were muted.
The Magpies would love nothing more than to get back into Ulster and have a crack at defending that title - but first they have to earn the right.
And Kilcoo's form up to this point suggests that is far from a foregone conclusion – but then, has too much been made of that?
Especially in recent years, the Magpies have proved themselves the masters of finding a way. When it comes to game management, they have been unrivalled. Okay, so they weren't at their most convincing against Mayobridge or Clonduff – but they are two of the top sides in the county. If you're not at your best but you're still getting past strong opposition, there surely can't be too much cause for concern.
The quarter-final win over Carryduff, a repeat of last year's final, should have been a wake-up call. For so much of the game the Magpies looked in complete control, only to switch off and let the city side back in.
Heading into extra-time, it was anybody's guess how it might go. Sometimes you get the sense Kilcoo need their backs to the wall to truly spark into life, and so it proved as experience saw them through.
The semi-final against Ballyholland was an ugly, ill-tempered affair. It was never likely to be anything else. Again Kilcoo found a way to win, though the reliance on grind rather than fluency and cohesion is clearly a worry.
There are mitigating factors, of course. The absence of Daryl Branagan's dynamic runs from deep has been keenly felt. The poise of Paul Devlin has been missed, while Dylan Ward is only working his way back from injury.
Moran and Gilligan will be hoping things click tomorrow, but they are facing a Burren side who have shown a few different faces through this championship run.
Even without Down forward Donal O'Hare, used sparingly by McCorry so far, they proved too strong for Saul and Glenn but stepped up when it mattered in quarter and semi-final victories over Mayobridge and Clonduff.
Both games hung in the balance heading into added time, only for Burren to get the job done. That has to give them huge belief heading into tomorrow.
However, the loss of livewire forward Liam Kerr to a broken collarbone is a massive blow. Impressive throughout the championship, Clonduff were struggling to get a handle on him before injury forced an early exit.
Without Kerr, Burren allowed the Yellas to gain a foothold in a game that could easily have slipped away from them in the first half.
O'Hare and Kevin McKernan bring attacking threat and know-how up top, but McCorry will have to find a way to compensate for the absence of Kerr's pace and penetration. If the 22-year-old was lining out tomorrow, you'd be tempted to give a tentative nod to Burren.
But history tells us that Kilcoo always save their best for when it really matters, and it is hard to shake the sense this final will go the same way.
PATHS TO FINAL
Round one: Burren 3-21 Saul 1-8
Round 2A: Burren 2-12 Glenn 0-8
Quarter-final: Burren 1-15 Mayobridge 2-8
Semi-final: Burren 0-9 Clonduff 0-8
Round one: Kilcoo 4-9 Mayobridge 1-12
Round 2A: Kilcoo 1-11 Clonduff 1-8
Quarter-final: Kilcoo 1-18 Carryduff 3-11(AET)
Semi-final: Kilcoo 0-8 Ballyholland 1-3