Kilcoo have too much experience to suffer shock end to Ulster defence
AIB Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Ramor United (Cavan) v Eoghan Rua, Kilcoo (Down) (tonight, Kingspan Breffni, 6pm – live on RTE2)
WEDNESDAY past marked the two-year anniversary of Kilcoo's maiden Ulster Championship triumph – and this evening they finally begin the defence of that crown against Cavan kingpins Ramor United at Kingspan Breffni.
The Covid-19 pandemic curtailed last year's club season, ensuring the muted celebrations that followed the Magpies' latest Down triumph was as good as it got, a long winter and another lockdown lingering just around the corner.
When the Seamus MacFerran Cup left the village 12 months ago, so Kilcoo moved onto the next chapter. Talk of defending the crown has been mentioned, albeit half-heartedly, with assistant boss Conleith Gilligan setting the tone through the week.
“It's a funny one because, with no provincial last year, and then the long lay-off,” said the Ballinderry man, “it doesn't kind of feel like we are holders.”
That Derry champions Glen, Maghera were installed as Ulster club favourites before a ball had even been thrown-in will have suited the Kilcoo psyche all the better as they prepare to enter the fray.
“If we're under the radar,” said goalkeeper Niall Kane, “even better.”
So where do Kilcoo stand in relation to two years ago? Are they better? Or a faded force? That debate to-ed and fro-ed throughout a county championship that culminated in a ninth Frank O'Hare triumph in 10 years and a further rubber-stamping of their dominance in Down.
A roll call of injuries played a part as they failed to catch fire at times, though only once – in the extra-time quarter-final win over Carryduff – did they ever look in any danger, three goals temporarily scrambling the senses after the Magpies appeared in complete control.
Typically, probably their best performance came in the final victory over old foes Burren, an early goal from the deadly Jerome Johnston and a sublime showing from younger brother Ryan helping open a gap that Jim McCorry's men didn't look like closing until it was too late.
Defensively, they remain as solid and as organised as ever, conceding an average of 12 points per game – the same as in 2019 – and, barring that aberration against Carryduff, rarely giving away goals.
Ryan McEvoy has had a couple more years to develop into the commanding presence you knew he could become, and the 20-year-old was imperious at times in the Down decider.
However, in blasting their way to Ulster glory and into the All-Ireland final, Darryl Branagan was key. His electric bursts from deep helped carve open Naomh Conaill in the provincial final, while Leinster champions Ballyboden had no answer to him at the All-Ireland semi-final stage.
Unfortunately for Kilcoo, injury has curtailed Branagan's involvement this year, with a hamstring injury forcing him from the field before half-time against Burren. He has since returned to training ahead of this evening's trip to Kingspan Breffni, but it appears likely to come too soon.
Miceal Rooney has stepped up and become an impressive performer, while Dylan Ward has also shaken off injury problems to reassert himself as a force around the middle, his driving runs causing Burren bother as Kilcoo grabbed the nettle early on.
Ramor United boss Aidan Cole Ray Cole will know his side are looking at a considerable step-up from anything they faced on the way to the Cavan title. The last time they made it into Ulster five years ago, the Virginia men fell foul of a late Maghery flurry - the same Maghery outfit was swotted aside by Kilcoo the next day out.
Only seven of the Ramor United side who started that day ran out for the Cavan SFC final replay against Gowna three weeks ago, while the 2016 crop was crammed with U21 players.
They showed a hard edge through the autumn when coming out the right side of tight games against Crosserlough, Shercock, Ballinagh and Cavan Gaels, scoring goals in every game bar the drawn final, with an experienced defence giving little away.
They came flying out of the traps in the replay, racing into a nine-point lead, and will need to start with similar urgency to have any chance of unsettling a Kilcoo side who go in as 1/4 favourites to set up a semi-final showdown against the winners of Glen or Scotstown on December 19.
Burren left it too late, but did worry Kilcoo late on when the introduction of the towering Shay McArdle wreaked havoc. Yet still, they found a way to weather the storm when it mattered.
Aidan Cole, James Brady and Sean McEvoy have the ability to trouble any defence, while Ramor have showed they are well capable of mixing up their approach, getting joy playing through the hands or going direct, an approach which paid off in spades in the replay win over Gowna.
If they strike upon any kind of purple patch, it must be grabbed with both hands. But do the Cavan champions have enough to force Kilcoo from their comfort zone for a sustained stretch, and to stop the Magpies ultimately smothering their challenge as they have done to so many before?
Not for my money. Kilcoo by four.