GAA Football

No pain no gain for Niall Kane as Kilcoo 'keeper looks ahead to Ulster tilt

This time last year Niall Kane was laid up after undergoing yet another operation, but he has fought back from injury to reclaim Kilcoo's number one jersey as they embark on a provincial campaign. He spoke to Neil Loughran...

Niall Kane was left in an Ilizarov frame for eight months after a knee operation in 2010

WHEN you’ve ruled your own patch for so long, talk of taking nothing for granted could easily wear thin. The more success comes your say, the more you expect it – these are the standards Kilcoo have continued to push across a decade of dominance in Down.

Nine county titles from 10, reigning Ulster champions and, regardless of how much the bookies fancy newcomers Glen to go all the way, it is Mickey Moran’s men who have the crosshairs on their back heading into Saturday’s provincial quarter-final clash with Cavan champions Ramor United.

Having waited so long before making their Down breakthrough in 2009, these are the days every soul in Kilcoo lives for. If there’s expectation, well then they must be doing something right.

Goalkeeper Niall Kane is no different. When the long whistle sounded to signal the Frank O’Hare Cup would be coming back to the village after victory over old foes Burren, he was right there in the thick of the celebrations. The few days that followed are a blur.

Few among the Magpies ranks are more acutely aware how quickly it could all come to an end, and how precarious any man’s hold on the Kilcoo number one jersey really is.

Let’s start with the injuries.

This time last year, Kane wasn’t sure he would ever pull on the jersey again, the latest bump on a long, undulating road of knee issues since moving into the senior ranks – the first one over a decade ago testing his resolve to the very limit.

“I was on the minor panel in ’09, we won [the Down championship], then when I moved up to the seniors. [Jim] McCorry was in charge and, for whatever reason, he just didn’t take to me,” said the 29-year-old.

“But then I broke my leg in the middle of the whole thing too, which didn’t help - dislocated my knee and tore my medial ligament… it actually twisted the bone above my knee, so I had to get it surgically broke.

“I missed three years as a result, I was in an Ilizarov frame for eight months, so I got a knee operation and my leg broke at the same time - you can imagine what that was like. The surgeon said to me ‘let’s be honest here, your football career’s over’.

“Imagine a boy from Kilcoo hearing that…”

By the time those words were even uttered, the comeback had already commenced.

Kane returned stronger and better, forcing his way into the first team after Paul McIver replaced McCorry. But when another operation was required 12 months ago to repair his meniscus, so came a familiar warning.

“I was more or less told I should retire, but sure I’d heard that before.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I played pain-free - if I was a dog they’d have put me down by now. Coming back the last time was probably the toughest because it wasn’t as straightforward.

“I’ve no cartilage at all left in my right knee, it’s pretty much bone on bone, so when I got back training and it blew up, you’re starting to wonder ‘is this it?’

“But I remember talking to Conor Laverty around that time, he told me to stick it out, try and manage it and see how it goes. Touch wood, it’s worked out okay so far…”

As if that wasn’t enough to leave you wondering was it really worth it, there is the constant battle for a starting spot in what must be one of the most competitive positions of any club in any county.

When Kane first came into the Magpies’ senior panel, elder brother Stevie was undisputed number one. After the long-serving Brendan McVeigh exited the inter-county stage, Stevie took over with Down too.

Attempting to unseat a sibling could lead to some uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table but, according to the younger brother, the bond between the pair ensures that has never been the case.

“When I came back from that first injury, I played thirds, then seconds. Then McIver came in and from 2015 it just took off. He gave me a bit of confidence, a bit of game-time… in the first round of the championship I played against Burren after Stevie got hurt.

“Stevie came back in then but in 2016 I says to McIver ‘look boys, I’m not sitting on the bench any more’. That was it - McIver said it’s there for you if you want it.

“That might sound strange, but you have to understand me and Stevie would be best mates. It’s healthy, because me and Stevie push each other on. With us, it doesn’t matter who’s in, as long as Kilcoo’s winning.

“Since I came in it was always Kilcoo first, everything else second. Winning is everything, that’s what was bred into us.”

Then, in 2019, Martin McCourt joined the mix as the Magpies went on an unforgettable journey that finally delivered the Seamus MacFerran Cup, and also brought them all the way to an All-Ireland final.

When they ran out Croke Park to take on Corofin at the start of 2020, however, Stevie and Niall Kane were watching from the dugout – and it is that meritocracy which continues to bring out the best in all three.

“That year I’d got married, Stevie had a back injury, and I said ‘look lads, McCourt’s there, he’s played senior football, have a look at him, we need to get him on here’ - and it was probably the worst thing I ever did because he came in and took my position.

“But this is life. In Kilcoo, you don’t really get annoyed. Yes, you want to play football, but as long as Kilcoo are winning that’s what’s most important.

“Like, we have three goalies there who would walk into any team in Down, if not Ulster. How can that be a bad thing? If one’s playing well at training, pulling off unbelievable saves, you’d be thinking ‘right, I need to start doing that’. Because even if you start one match, that’s no guarantee you’ll start the next day.

“It’s a pressurised role but it keeps you on your game. It keeps you pushing.”

Still, though, after so many years of beating at the door in Ulster, it must have hurt like hell not to be out there when Kilcoo finally did knocked it through?

“Ah look, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say it wasn’t tough. It was. I played against Burren in the Down quarter-final and I had a poor game. Hold my hands up, I wasn’t great. It went to a replay, Marty came in and you have to take your hat off to him, he was brilliant.

“He played in the county final and was brilliant, then in Ulster, only for him Kilcoo wouldn’t have won Ulster. That’s just calling a spade a spade. Mickey would have chatted to me and said ‘look, that man’s playing very well, you just need to keep pushing’.

“The fact I was pushing hard kept Marty honest hopefully. It was tough, but it was still enjoyable. We won an Ulster, it took 10 years to get there. A lot of good men who should’ve got an Ulster never did, so I can’t sit here and complain because I didn’t play.

“Sometimes to succeed you have to fail. We failed many times in Down before we got over the line, and we failed many times in Ulster too, but we got there. If you keep winning all the time you’re going to learn nothing.”

Right now, Kane is the man between the posts – but he had to fight for that spot back after a unique set of circumstances saw McCourt start the championship campaign against Mayobridge back on September 19.

For reasons beyond football it is a date that will never leave Kane’s head, with wife Eilís giving birth to baby daughter Quinn that evening.

“I was due to start the Mayobridge game and we were to be called in on the Monday after it, but then on Sunday morning Eilís was like ‘we need to go’… I still was hmming and haaing about whether to go and play the match.

“I actually said to the midwife ‘sure I could go, there’s no sign of this child coming here - I need to go and play this match here, these boys need me’. She talked me out of going and so I ended up sticking the iPad on to watch it, roaring and shouting all over the hospital.”

McCourt got the nod the next day too but, having edged past neighbours Clonduff, Kane was recalled for the last eight clash with Carryduff – and hasn’t looked back since.

“Honestly, you’d take absolutely nothing for granted in Kilcoo. The way things are at the minute, you have to enjoy every second.

“Playing under Mickey and them boys… it’s hard to describe. He’s just one of them men – he talks, you listen. If Mickey rang me at 10 at night and said ‘Bobo, we’re training in Cork at eight in the morning’, I’d be there at seven.

“That’s the respect we all have for him. It wouldn’t be an issue, there’d be no crying match. Where Mickey’s concerned you just get on with it.

“From my own point of view, who knows how much longer my knees will carry me, so you have to make hay while the sun shines.”

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