GAA Football

Ulster defence next on the horizon for Kilcoo: Conleith Gilligan

Kilcoo boss Mickey Moran and assistant Conleith Gilligan in conversation before yesterday's Down championahip final victory over Burren. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran at Pairc Esler

IT takes a special side to be able to win back-to-back Ulster club titles – but that is the challenge that lies ahead of Kilcoo after they secured a ninth Down crown in 10 years yesterday.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw the 2020 Ulster club shelved, meaning the Magpies would have to wait another year and conquer Down again to have a shot at retaining the title they won for the first time in 2019.

Victory over Burren in Newry sent them through to a December 5 showdown with whoever comes out of the Cavan final replay between Gowna and Ramor United, as they bid to emulate the achievement of clubs like Crossmaglen and Slaughtneil in recent times.

However, Kilcoo assistant boss Conleith Gilligan – an Ulster club winner with Ballinderry in 2001 and 2013 – knows the size of the task before them.

“There’s very few teams have been able to do it, so you go there and the hope is that you’re good enough,” he said.

“You’ve a few weeks now to try and get the injuries sorted and get everybody back – if you can pick from a full team through Ulster, it’s a big advantage.”

The Magpies lost Daryl Branagan to a hamstring injury before half-time, and he faces a race against time to be fit in four weeks’ time. Shealan Johnston went off at half-time with suspected concussion, but is expected to be okay.

Rather than peering too far into the future, however, Gilligan was keen to ensure this success was celebrated too - and paid particular tribute to clubman Caelan McEvoy in their moment of triumph.

The 24-year-old, brother of full-back Ryan, underwent an 18-hour liver transplant operation in London during the week, and Gilligan hopes yesterday’s success provided some respite at a tough time.

“Caelan and his dad Richie would be a massive part of our backroom team… they couldn’t even watch the game because it’s such a sensitive ward they’re in, you’re not allowed wifi or anything.

“It would have been breaking their hearts too, they’re the first men down every night, setting up the lights, setting up the hall, just giving all the time.

“Like, chatting to Richie before the game, he was apologising that he couldn’t be there - and he genuinely meant that. They’re people you would carry to matches, they’re just so good.

“Hopefully this gives Caelan a lift today and he’ll be home very, very soon. It’s for those people you hope you get good days.”

Such stories put both the joy of victory and the pain of defeat into perspective, and Burren boss Jim McCorry was quick to wish the Magpies well in their Ulster campaign.

“We had a really poor opening first period, and then when the goal goes in you’re always chasing that,” said the man who led Kilcoo to a hat-trick of Down titles between 2012 and 2014.

Ryan Johnston was outstanding as Kilcoo claimed a ninth Down title in 20 years with victory over Burren yesterday. Picture by Philip Walsh

“I’ve talked about the character of this team and they showed that in the second half, we pulled back to get fairly close but typical Kilcoo, even when you’re getting back into the game, they keep the scoreboard ticking over.

“They’ve been great champions over the years and we wish them all the best for Ulster.”

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GAA Football