Down kingpins Kilcoo defend their Ulster Championship against Fermanagh force Derrygonnelly Harps
Ulster Senior Club Football Championship final: Kilcoo (Down) v Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 3.45pm)
By Andy Watters
UNDERDOGS have had memorable days in this club season. Watty Graham's Glen won a first-ever Derry title, Creggan ended a 67-year wait in Antrim and Clann Eireann landed their first Armagh crown since 1963.
But the last clubs standing are the dominant forces in their county's – reigning Ulster champions Kilcoo won a ninth Down in title in 10 years and Derrygonnelly, the underdogs tomorrow afternoon, have won six out of the last seven in Fermanagh.
Both sides are accustomed to success within their own borders and both will know that one error: An unchecked run, a misplaced pass or a scuffed kick-out could decide the issue. Neither team can afford to give anything away in a game that many predict will not be decided until the final quarter.
Among Kilcoo's strengths is the ability to identifying their opponents' top performers and shut them down and manager Mickey Moran will have earmarked Gary McKenna and Conall Jones (1-11 in two Ulster games so far including nine points from frees) as Derrygonnelly's chief attacking threats and could dispatch Niall Branagan and Ryan McEvoy to close them down.
But the strength of the Fermanagh champions comes from further out the field. Their game is based on countering from a tight defensive system that soaks up space inside their own 45 and, in their semi-final against Clann Eireann, it was Shane McGullion who did the damage with two goals.
The Derrygonnelly tackling stood out in that game. When an attacking player from the Armagh champions ran into traffic he was stopped in his tracks, smothered by defenders and turned over and the Ernemen counterattacked with lightning pace.
Their tactics, albeit against a Clann Eireann side that didn't perform at their best, worked like a charm and they raced into an early lead which their opponents could not overhaul, even against 14 men after Stephen McGullion had been sent off.
Derrygonnelly were able to weather a late storm and progress to tomorrow's final thanks to the battling qualities they displayed getting past Tyrone's Dromore after extra-time in the quarter-final.
So this is the club's first provincial decider but they are veterans in Ulster and came mighty close to taking Kilcoo's scalp at the semi-final stage in 2019. A little trademark magic from Conor Laverty proved to be the difference that day. The quick-thinking Kilcoo veteran picked out Aaron Morgan with a free and Morgan's pass sent Aaron Branagan through – his goal was the difference in a 1-8 to 0-9 victory for Kilcoo who went on to win their first ever Ulster title.
Will the experience of that previous meeting count for or against Derrygonnelly tomorrow? Yes, they know they can compete with Kilcoo but, on the flipside, the Magpies will alerted to what they are in for in a final in which small margins could make huge differences.
Aaron Branagan was the hero last time the club's met but he hasn't scored yet in Kilcoo's Ulster campaign and that is typical of a team that can conjure up scores from all over the pitch and so often they come exactly when they're needed.
The Magpies give the impression that they are doing just enough to get over the line but that is all down to their game management. Manager Moran has downloaded his gameplan into the mainframe of every player on the field and so they don't do more than they have to and they give absolutely nothing away. This is a team that doesn't make mistakes but they punish opponents for theirs.
Jerome Johnston has been the go-to man in attack for Kilcoo this season. A clinical finisher, he has found his opponents' net seven times in Down and Ulster competition. His 2-2 sank Cavan's Ramor United in the quarter-final and it was Johnston who popped up in extra-time against Derry's Glen when Paul Devlin (Kilcoo's reliable free-taker) seized on a misplaced kick-out and sent him through on goal.
Glen were winning by a point at that stage and victory was within their grasp but Johnston's brilliant finish meant Kilcoo went through to this final.
That semi-final was a safety-first dog-fight of a game. Neither side gave anything away: Glen packed their defence and looked to hit Kilcoo on the counter and then the Magpies did the same.
Derrygonnelly have a formidable midfield pairing in Ryan Jones and Stephen McGullion and they've looked at their most fluent when they win a kick-out, turn and attack but it'll make no difference to them if the game is scoreless at half-time tomorrow. What the Fermanagh champions want is to keep it nip-and-tuck until the last quarter and then they'll look to commit players to attack and go for broke.
So is it up to Kilcoo to come out and force the issue? Yes, they beat Glen in a chess match but the game could have gone either way and sitting back and gambling on a mistake tomorrow could be playing into the hands of the underdogs.
It won't be a total shock if Kilcoo give the likes of Miceal Rooney and Shealan Johnston licence to go on the attack early on because a two-point lead for them equates to a five-point lead for other sides. If they get their noses in front, Derrygonnelly will have to break out of their defensive system and that will leave them open to the pace of the Johnston brothers on the counterattack.
An intriguing encounter awaits and Derrygonnelly will be united and driven on by honouring the memory of club stalwart Peter Jones, father of Leigh and Aaron, who sadly passed away last July.
They'll make every ball a battle and they'll know that they've come close before and that underdogs have had great days in this club season but Kilcoo get the nod to retain their Ulster crown tomorrow.