Kilcoo experience can secure second shot at All-Ireland glory
AIB All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final: Eoghan Rua, Kilcoo (Down) v St Finbarr’s (Cork) (today, O’Moore Park, 3pm – live on TG4)
THE numbers game may suggest a David versus Goliath clash, yet Kilcoo go into today’s All-Ireland semi-final as heavy favourites after cementing their status as Ulster’s top dogs earlier this month.
Having relished the role of underdog during their steady rise up the ranks, that is a position the Magpies are never entirely comfortable with. But, being so good, they have only themselves to blame on that front.
It seems like a lifetime ago now that questions were being asked of Mickey Moran’s men as they negotiated their run to a 10th straight county final in solid, if unspectacular, fashion. Some even suggested Kilcoo were a fading force.
Yet, under Mickey Moran, the Magpies have become masters of timing their run. Bar a late Burren burst, they largely controlled the Down decider against their old rivals before really hitting top form in Ulster.
Cavan’s Ramor United were blown away, Glen – installed as favourites for All-Ireland glory after claiming the Derry title – were ground down in extra-time, before Derrygonnelly were destroyed in a one-sided Ulster final a fortnight ago.
Across those games, Kilcoo have shown they can adapt and succeed no matter what comes their way. If patience is required, so be it - there is nobody better, nobody more precise in possession. If an opponent is going to stand off they will pay a heavy price, as Derrygonnelly found to their cost.
Jerome Johnston has been banging in goals for fun, brother Ryan looks revitalised, while the return to fitness of Paul Devlin and Darryl Branagan – whose bursts from deep helped propel Kilcoo to a 2020 All-Ireland final appearance - have added an extra attacking edge.
Eugene Branagan, Ceilum Doherty and Miceal Rooney bring the relentless energy and work-rate while the defensive axis led by the brilliant Ryan McEvoy has provided the most solid of foundations.
These are the reasons why, despite a parish population of just 1,600, the Magpies are strongly fancied to see off a St Finbarr’s side drawing from a significantly larger base, and with a long history of success – the Togher outfit boasting three football All-Ireland titles, two in hurling, nine Munster titles and 35 Cork crowns across both codes.
In a national context, they are an established force, but that will count for little when they cross the white line at O’Moore Park today.
In a zoom call on Thursday, St Finbarr’s goalkeeper John Kerins insisted he hadn’t watched Kilcoo’s Ulster final win. Presumably the management and selectors will have paid closer attention, if only for a lesson in how not to approach today’s game.
The Barrs cannot afford Kilcoo anywhere near the same respect, and must try and put the Magpies on the back foot earlier on or they will find themselves facing an uphill battle.
They can draw comfort from the fact they have already upset the odds to reach this stage by overcoming Kerry champions Austin Stack’s in the Munster final. Defensively, St Finbarr’s were brilliant that day.
It is at the other end of the field, though, where they really need to make their presence felt. Liatroim native Conor McCrickard has the ability to unlock even the tightest defence, while Steven Sherlock, Cillian Myers-Murray and Brian Hayes all pose a considerable threat.
Captain Ian Maguire and Eoin Comyns will fancy their chances of getting on top around the middle – but then many would have expected the Derrygonnelly twin towers of Ryan Jones and Stephen McGullion to dominate that sector too, only for the roles to be reversed as they were overrun by the excellent Dylan Ward and Aaron Morgan.
With their experience and know-how at this level, it is hard to shake the sense that the outcome of today’s semi-final is firmly in Kilcoo’s hands. Perform to the level they have and a chance at All-Ireland final redemption awaits – there is little reason to doubt the Magpies now.