AIB Ulster Club SFC semi-final: Kilcoo 3-14 Enniskillen Gaels 1-9
AT what point do decisions tip over and find themselves exposed to the court of popular opinion?
You ask because it was a surprise to learn after Saturday night’s encounter that Enniskillen Gaels had won the coin toss beforehand.
The wind in Armagh would have blown your head off. The flags led a strained existence behind the goal into which the Down champions were given the luxury of kicking in the first half.
Youthful underdogs minus a leader in Callum Jones and having to deal with the fact Eoin Beacom only has half an hour in him, the Fermanagh champions chose that they would attempt to impersonate a Persian army first.
Ten minutes in, Kilcoo have just 0-2 on the board. The first goal comes then but eight minutes later, it’s still only 1-2 to 0-0.
If the second quarter had gone as the first quarter did, the Gaels’ big purple patch after half-time might have done more than just change the mood music playlist.
But it didn’t. Kilcoo scored another 1-6 before half-time, with the second goal handed to them on a plate in stoppage time. Thirteen points was the margin at the break. The game was over.
Beacom would spring from the bench to score 1-3 for his side, who hit 1-4 on the bounce to reel Kilcoo back to within seven. The crowd found themselves but in terms of winning the game it was always going to be forlorn.
That’s management for you. Simon Bradley took it on the chin at the door of their changing room as the boyish faces filed out past, their average age just 21 if you remove their two eldest from the starting side.
“We gifted them two goals. The stats man is after telling me they were probably turned the ball over for 2-8.
“Now, it wasn’t an easy decision. If we’d won the game it’s a great decision, you lose the game it’s a terrible decision,” said the Gaels’ manager.
“They kicked a few wides, we identified they’re not great from outside a certain distance, they know that themselves and they play into you.”
Knowing Beacom only had 30 minutes and deciding beforehand that those would be the second 30 minutes was central to the call.
Would it have mattered to the result? Probably not.
Kilcoo scored 2-8 with the breeze and 1-6 against it. There’s no better club team in Ireland at getting runners ahead of the ball when they turn it over. They’re not exactly afraid of a wind.
Shealan Johnston is no longer in the shadow of his siblings. He was outstanding on Saturday evening. The two goals, one off either foot, were well taken but it was as much the general buzzing around.
Speaking of siblings, Daryl Branagan’s two scores were like twins of each other. Same position, same perfect finish just 90 seconds apart. He once more dictated so much of their attacking play from deep.
When he fired a long, raking, 60-yard pass in to full-forward at a stage, Aaron was up from corner-back and won a mark to score. Even in the enforced absence of Dylan Ward, Eugene Branagan, the reigning Club Footballer of the Year, couldn’t get into a winning team and only came on at half-time for Aaron.
Kilcoo didn’t change much about a gameplan that didn’t conform to some of the stereotypes that exist about them. When Enniskillen were there to be squeezed in the first half, Kilcoo squeezed hard. They stripped Cian Newman’s kickout bare, forcing him to balloon everything into the sky through a gale, and the black and white shirts won most of what came back down.
It was Newman’s mistake that made the mountain impassable. His pass backwards uncertain and half-baked, intercepted by Conor Laverty.
When they turn a ball over, goals are the only thing on their mind. Laverty himself, the Down manager lest we forget, has always coached his players only to take a point if they can’t score a goal instead.
He’s like the Scottie Pippen of the Kilcoo forward line now. You’ll rarely see any more than 0-1 in the Monday morning brackets after his name, but nothing about their forward line would tick quite the same if he wasn’t there to pick the right pass so often.
Plenty offered flashes. Ceilum Doherty’s delicious footwork, Micéal Rooney’s continued development into a hard-as-nails wee half-back. Aaron Morgan putting the shackles on Brandon Horan and nabbing the third goal for himself.
Above all, they don’t look at all like a team whose 2021 only ended in January 2022. A lot of them went off and did their own thing in spring and even summer. Aidan Branagan and Felim McGreevy tried to pretend to themselves that they were retired. But Pairc Eoghan Rua is like a boomerang park.
“The hunger word’s used a lot,” said joint-manager Conleith Gilligan.
“Whenever you’re winning it’s never really a factor. A lot of people put in a lot of stuff last year, they sacrificed holidays and trips away and travelling and all that.
“After last year, they wanted a bit of time and we had to give it ‘til them. Look, to be fair, they came back when they said they were gonna come back and they gave it everything.
“You can only let them loose because they’re very young and they have to experience things like that. We’re all delighted they did come home when they did.”
The Gaels had a few big men on the night too. Richard O’Callaghan has brought the heart of a lion to their campaign. He even convinced the referee and umpires to give a score that was at least three feet wide after a double bounce, and you couldn’t say he didn’t deserve it.
Ryan McDonnell had done well on Conor Brady the last night and did well again on Ryan Johnston, while Josh Horan kept Jerome Johnston scoreless. John Reihill has been one of those inglorious stars of club football this season, all effort and heart and relentlessness.
There’s nothing to patronise them about. When they went inside at the break, Simon Bradley put it to them quite simple.
“We said to the players that you’ve two choices now, you put down a marker: What sort of an Ulster Club team are you gonna be if you manage to get out of your county again? Are you gonna be a team that rolls over or will you be a team that doesn’t roll over?
“We didn’t roll over. Very, very proud of the second half performance and the players should be too.”
Very few teams find their sea legs after two Ulster Club games. Enniskillen Gaels’ youthfulness hints that they’ll have much more to offer in the years to come.
Kilcoo’s blend, though, is pretty close to perfect.
This final with Glen in two weeks’ time could be something else altogether.
Kilcoo: N Kane; N Branagan, R McEvoy, Aaron Branagan (0-1 mark); T Fettes, D Branagan (0-2), M Rooney (0-1); Aaron Morgan (1-0), Anthony Morgan; C Doherty (0-2), R Johnston (0-1), S Johnston (2-1); C Laverty (0-1), J Johnston, P Devlin (0-4 frees)
Subs: E Branagan (0-1) for Aaron Branagan (HT), Aidan Branagan for Anthony Morgan (51), S Óg McCusker for Laverty (58), G McEvoy for J Johnston (58), M Hynes for S Johnston (60)
Enniskillen Gaels: C Newman; J Ferguson, A Nolan, J Horan (0-1); J Tierney, R McDonnell, J Cassidy, C Smith; B Horan, R O’Callaghan (0-2); N McDermott, C McShea, C Watson (0-1); C Love (0-1 free), J Reihill (0-1)
Subs: P Reihill for McDermott (20), E Beacom (1-3, 0-1 free) for Smith (HT), R Bogue for Watson (49), C Quinn for Ferguson (49), P Cassidy for McDonnell (58)
Referee: S Hurson (Galbally)