Mother Maureen in Niall Kane's thoughts after Kilcoo Ulster title triumph
AMID all the hugs, fist pumps and pats on the back that followed Kilcoo’s Ulster title triumph on Sunday, there was only one person in Niall Kane’s thoughts as he soaked in the scenes of celebration at the Athletic Grounds.
The experienced Kane watched from the wings when the Magpies finally made their provincial breakthrough in 2019, but it wasn’t that game – or the hurt at missing out - that shot to mind.
Instead he went back to 2016 and defeat to a Mickey Moran-managed Slaughtneil. Alongside his team-mates, Kane stood solemnly as the Emmet’s hoisted aloft the prize Kilcoo coveted most – the Seamus MacFerran Cup.
But that pain was only superficial in the grand scheme of things.
“This is sweet,” he said, standing in the middle of the field as darkness descended on Armagh.
“I was actually thinking about it yesterday, the last time I played in an Ulster final, my mother Maureen passed away four days after it… it was tough, getting beat by Slaughtneil and then losing your mother so soon after.
“I promised her we’d win an All-Ireland. Any time she got to see me play, I was happy. And I always wanted to get back and feature in an Ulster final, for her really. Look, if we go on and bigger things happen, I’m sure she’s happy.
“For myself, I’m just delighted to be back.”
And Kane’s personal journey back to the big stage is a testament to his own determination to keep the dream alive. For the most incredible campaign in the club’s history, he lost the number one jersey to Martin McCourt.
An emerging talent, Kane had actually been McCourt’s biggest advocate when chatting to Moran and his assistant, Conleith Gilligan, earlier in 2019.
“It was probably the worst thing I ever did,” he joked in an interview last year.
The youngster backed up the hype with a string of superb performances as Kilcoo conquered Ulster before going on to the All-Ireland final, only losing out to reigning champions Corofin after extra-time.
“It was tough,” he said, “everybody trains hard, everybody wants a jersey, unfortunately sometimes in life it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. You just have to keep the head down and keep at it, keep everybody honest.”
Kane won his place back but, with no Ulster to aim for as a result of the pandemic, 2020 finished in frustrating fashion – and then came the injury that left him wondering whether he would ever pull on the jersey again.
An operation was required to repair his meniscus, the latest in a string of knee issues since breaking into the senior team over a decade ago. At 29, there is only so much the body can take.
But back he came and, having seen good friend Darragh O’Hanlon forced into retirement after an injury-hit three years, Kane knows just how lucky he is to be in the thick of it on days like these.
“That injury… I did question myself a lot. I did think ‘f**k, is this really worth it?’
“But I did everything in my power to get back. Over Christmas, me and the wife were talking, I think I had four nights out in the space of a year because I was so determined to get back playing.
“I just kept the head down and worked hard. Thankfully the boys picked me and I’m here today.”
Kane and the Kilcoo full-back line had to withstand a second half aerial bombardment on Sunday as Derrygonnelly tried to work their way back into what was fast becoming a lost cause.
Alongside full-back Ryan McEvoy, they managed to repel everything that came their way and hold the Harps at bay.
“Look, I don’t mind getting an oul bat in the face, and me and Ryan have a great understanding - we work very well together.
“It’s sort of a love-hate relationship, the both of us are f-ing each other off four or five times a game, but it’s keeping the both of us on our toes. I love the big hoor, he keeps me honest.”
After successfully defending their Ulster title, Kilcoo are red hot favourites to not only overcome Cork and Munster champions St Finbarr’s on January 29, but to go one step further than 2020 by claiming the All-Ireland crown.
And Kane doesn’t try and disguise the fact sights are firmly set on the Andy Merrigan Cup.
“Look, you get people in interviews and they try to paper the whole thing up – at the start of the year, our goal was to get back to an All-Ireland final, and that’s still our aim. That’s the goal.
“We’ll go out against St Finbarr’s and do everything in our power to get to an All-Ireland final. I’m not one of these boys to bullshit you and say ‘ah, y’know, big task ahead…’ - f**k that.
“Our goal is an All-Ireland final and an All-Ireland title.”