Champions Kilcoo a different challenge as Ballybay bid to emulate Cross heroics

Kilcoo edged past Warrenpoint in last month's Down final to claim a 10th county crown in 11 years - with attention now turning to the defence of their Ulster title. Picture by Philip Walsh
Kilcoo edged past Warrenpoint in last month's Down final to claim a 10th county crown in 11 years - with attention now turning to the defence of their Ulster title. Picture by Philip Walsh

AIB Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Pearse Brothers, Ballybay (Monaghan) v Eoghan Rua, Kilcoo (Down) (tomorrow, Clones, 1.30pm)

THE Jerome Johnston sr sideshow may have dominated much of the build-up to tomorrow’s Ulster semi-final showdown between Kilcoo and Ballybay, but it will all be forgotten the second the ball is thrown in at St Tiernach’s Park.

Let’s not forget joint manager Mark Doran has been there with Johnston sr – who has opted not to be involved against his home club and three sons, Jerome jr, Ryan and Shealan – on every step of this journey.

As a Longstone native, former manager of Castlewellan and an ex-Down coach who has worked at close quarters with several of the Kilcoo players in the past, there isn’t much anybody could tell him about the Magpies that he doesn’t already know.

The challenge now is to do what nobody has managed in the 19 championship games since Warrenpoint edged across the line in August 2020 – beat them.

And Doran will be acutely aware that tomorrow’s encounter will bear absolutely no resemblance to what transpired at the Athletic Grounds seven days ago.

Five points separated Ballybay and Crossmaglen at the end, but it could have been much more. While Cross came flying out of the blocks, their cause aided by Drew Wylie’s early black card, the warning lights were already flashing for the south Armagh men from five minutes in.

With the evergreen Paul Finlay drifting in and out of full-forward to impressive effect, the Monaghan champions exploited the wide open spaces in the Crossmaglen rearguard to earn a penalty from which Shane McGuinness converted.

Shortly after Eoin McKearney found himself wide open when Ballybay carved Cross open with the minimum of fuss once more, only to see his goalbound effort blocked.

Before half-time another rapid break led to Shane McGuinness’s shot being turned around the post, while the same man passed up another goal chance at the start of the second half before Aaron Toner palmed home Ballybay’s second major as Cross were ripped apart again.

Even though the game was going away from them, and having lost Dara O’Callaghan to a black card for the opening 10 minutes of the second half, Crossmaglen continued to cough up possession.

Ballybay – as was the case throughout the Monaghan championship – ramped up the turnover count, sitting deep and making their opponents pay on the counter, with Dessie Ward, Colm Lennon and McKearney bursting forward at will.

Coming up with a plan to stymie the attacking talents of Jamie Clarke, Cian McConville and Rian O’Neill is no mean feat either, and while that trio enjoyed fleeting moments of success in the first half, it was ultimately just that.

Ryan Wylie eventually got to grips with McConville, Michael Hannon largely nullified Jamie Clarke after a shaky start, and Drew Wylie was glued to O’Neill all night. Their toughness, level of organisation and pace makes Ballybay a serious proposition for anybody at the minute.

Indeed, without bringing Jerome Johnston sr back into the conversation, there are similarities with the way Kilcoo go about their business.

However, the naivety Crossmaglen displayed at times is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the big game experience the Magpies bring to Clones.

Kilcoo’s keep ball style ensures their defence is seldom left exposed. Ballybay scored two goals last week but could have had six. They cannot afford to be so profligate should opportunities arise tomorrow.

For all the plaudits that rightly came Finlay’s way in the wake of last week’s win, Conleith Gilligan and Richie Thornton will know that Dessie Ward is the heartbeat of this Ballybay side.

Man-of-the-match as their Scotstown itch was scratched in the county final, Ward’s powerful running and cleverness on the ball couldn’t be contained by Cross either.

Finlay, Thomas Kerr and the McGuinness brothers, Shane and Christoper, all feed off his energy around the middle. The Magpies will do their best to try and curb his influence, and Dylan Ward is expected to go toe-to-toe with the Monaghan dynamo. That battle will be critical to Ballybay’s hopes.

Kilcoo looked laboured at times on the way to a 10th Down crown in 11 years, not least in a tense quarter-final tussle with Clonduff that was eventually settled on penalties, before uncharacteristically allowing Warrenpoint to come back from four points down on two occasions in the county final.

The loss of suspended club player of the year Eugene Branagan could be significant.

Sprung from the bench against the ’Point, his athleticism helped prise open a tiring defence in the latter stages of normal time and then extra-time.

Ryan Johnston and Miceal Rooney, raiding from deep, also possess that game-changing ability, so often feeding off the unselfish work of forward pair Conor Laverty and Jerome Johnston jr. In Branagan’s absence, they carry greater responsibility.

Fine margins will settle this one, but it is in the midst of such nerve-jangling chaos that Kilcoo have become so adept at coming up with the answers required. This one will be tight, it could go to extra-time, but the Magpies can hold their nerve to progress.