'I would never go down the lane not wanting to compete for myself': Kilcoo stalwart McEvoy keeping shoulder to the wheel
Championship minutes might have been hard to come by in recent years, but Gerard McEvoy typifies the kind of attitude that has brought club kings Kilcoo to the top of the tree. Ahead of tomorrow's Ulster final date with Glen, the Magpies stalwart tells Neil Loughran why football still means so much…
THE game was long gone by the time the board went up, but Gerard McEvoy wasn’t thinking about the score when Richie Thornton told him to get stripped with a few minutes to go.
Kilcoo had flown out of the blocks in Armagh, using the huge wind at their backs to blow away Enniskillen Gaels. A 13 point gap at half-time was eaten into, though never enough to threaten the Magpies’ progression into tomorrow’s mouth-watering Ulster final against Derry champions Glen.
At the same time as young gun Sean Og McCusker replaced veteran forward Conor Laverty, McEvoy was coming on for Jerome Johnston. It was his first taste of Ulster championship action since 2016, a late cameo at the end of another routine win as Kilcoo blazed beyond Maghery.
“Six years,” he says, “it’s been a while...”
Minutes haven’t been much easier to come by in Down either, where the Magpies have been the dominant force for the last decade.
“2019… Mickey Moran’s first year. The first game against An Riocht in Burren, I started that match, came off at half-time. That was the last one.”
On each of those occasions, McEvoy went about his business with the minimum of fuss. That’s how he has always rolled, whether during a decade-and-a-half as Kilcoo’s resident number seven, or in the years since losing that coveted spot.
Don’t think for a second it didn’t hurt – it did. It does.
Yet when the squad sheet is circulated, his name is always on it. No matter what night training takes place at Pairc Eoghan Rua, he is there. Almost all of his contemporaries, including brothers Gary and Niall, have since departed the scene.
Turning 41 in March, and in his 23rd season at senior level, it would be easy to cut corners or phone it in, knowing his race is almost run. But this is not how McEvoy is made.
Back in July he led the Magpies’ Premier Reserve side to Championship glory. While some elder statesmen allow themselves to winter well, he still bears the build of a bantamweight boxer, no different from those timeless images of Kilcoo’s 2009 breakthrough - the proud captain hoisting the Frank O’Hare Cup aloft, 72 years of hurt coming to an end.
“Aye,” he smiles, “I’d a full head of hair in those pictures.”
Current circumstances illustrate the scale of McEvoy’s ongoing commitment to the cause. An electrician working out of the Citywest site in Dublin, he leaves Kilcoo at 5am, arriving home roughly 12 hours later.
A quick bite to eat, a brief chat with wife Orla and daughters Amelia (9), Sofia (7) and Ida (4), then out the door - all knowing he may not see a second of game-time come Sunday.
So, that leaves just one place to start. Why?
“I love playing football, that’s the truth of it.
“I mind speaking to a few boys from other clubs through the years who said they were coming down to training at seven grumpy, jumping over the fence, yapping at the young boys… it had become a chore. They got to the point where they actually hated it.
“If you hated it, why would you do it? And listen, there’s no point lying, the success we’ve had in the last 10 years helps. Success and trophies makes you want to go back, to keep pushing. You want to go further. A whole lot of us may have been gone before now if it hadn’t gone the way it has.
“But it was hard. Whenever you sort of get phased out, it’s a double-edged sword – you be glad to see the team doing better, obviously the likes of Darryl and Aaron [Branagan] come in, they were young and fresh and they have been unbelievable.
“We had played and won a lot of Down championships, but we could never bridge that gap in Ulster, and then when you have young players coming in pushing you… it was tough.
“I really struggled in the three or four years after I lost my position. Like, I remember being taken off in a semi-final in Down one night, against Bryansford… I only came off in the last five minutes and it felt like the longest five minutes of my life.”
Even on the coldest of winter nights, though, the fire still burns, selflessness and selfishness all bundled up in one, the way it has to be at a club constantly dreaming big.
Having a man like McEvoy about must be a manager’s dream but, make no mistake, Conleith Gilligan and Richie Thornton, Mickey Moran and Paul McIver, they have all been asked the question. The day it doesn’t come is the day the curtain comes down for good.
“I’d always have a quiet word, ask ‘what’s the craic?’ and they generally set you straight.
“Sometimes they tell you what you already know, but I suppose in a way you just need to hear it. You have to be realistic at my age, and it’s the same for a few of the other older guys… you sort of know where you’re at.
“Still, I be determined to play every match - I make that clear to the guys. You know you’re not going to be starting, but if you’re not going to come down and push them, you might as well stay at home.
“We’ve all plenty of other stuff to be doing. I’ve three girls here, there’s enough to be done around the house, so if you’re there, you’re there for a reason.
“You can talk about pushing young lads on and all that… I would never go down the lane not wanting to compete for myself.”
THE story of Kilcoo’s remarkable rise from Down also-rans to All-Ireland kingpins was well told before and after that unforgettable evening at Croke Park last February but, to those who lived it - the good days and the bad – the tale never tires of telling.
Gerard McEvoy still smiles and shakes his head at the notion of the Magpies as some kind of all-conquering juggernaut.
Although solid foundations had been laid by the time he made his senior bow as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in 2000, their current standing on a county, provincial and national scale would have been beyond any comprehension, so accustomed had Kilcoo become to watching others eating up county crowns for fun.
He thinks of the sliding doors moments when it might have gone the other way, the hammerings and the hidings, the determined young crew who continually came back for more. People don’t talk about those days so much now but they’re there, still fresh in the memory.
“I was very lucky because I joined the senior panel in and around the time we were promoted to Division One - there was a lot of great footballers before me played in Division Two and Division Three, they probably don’t get the recognition for getting us up.
“They gave us a platform, gave us something to build on. We won a league in 2003 and, I’ll not lie, we celebrated more then because we hadn’t won a league title in 50 odd years. At that stage even, the Down championship was a long way off, and we took some awful tankings along the way.
“One of the early days, Longstone beat us by 20 points in Newcastle. They had a very good young team with Ambrose [Rogers] junior, the Dorans, Mark Poland…
“As the years went on we got some bad beatings by Mayobridge. One year they beat us up the road in Hilltown by 20 odd points as well. If you want to achieve anything, you have to park the like of that and move on, but if you’d got the same the next two or three years? Maybe then it’s a different story.
“The following year Mayobridge beat us by seven or eight, the year after we were winning with five minutes to go and they just did enough to close out the game, and they went on and won another championship.
“That gave us the belief we were at least closing the gap.”
The next year, 2009, was when everything changed.
Having safely navigated the early rounds, Kilcoo faced their nemesis at the quarter-final stage. Even with Jim McCorry in the black and white corner against his former charges, the six in-a-row seeking ’Bridge remained the acid test.
On a dog of a day in Hilltown, though, the course of the club’s history changed – yet it could have been so different.
“We still talk about it to this day.
“That game possibly shouldn’t have gone ahead, the pitch was completely waterlogged. I remember running down the line at the start of the match and a big guy, ‘Tooter’ Murnin, was brushing water off the pitch as I was running by him. It was wild.
“Had that game been called off, which it probably should have been, who knows what would have happened? A refixture the next week and they maybe would’ve beat us.
“Even at that, we were seven points down with 10 minutes to go and managed to turn it round… sitting here now, looking at all that’s happened in between, you do sometimes find yourself looking back on moments like that and wondering ‘what if?’
“That was a massive, massive turning point for us.”
Burren were beaten in a brilliant semi-final before, on a nervy afternoon in Newry, Kilcoo finally reached the promised land, seeing off Loughinisland 2-9 to 1-4. And, along with Anthony Devlin’s famous jump for joy, it is McEvoy’s coat-hanger smile that remains forever frozen in time.
“That was our All-Ireland,” he says, “we couldn’t see anything past that.
“We went on into Ulster with the hope of winning it, but that’s what it was - hope. We were four or five points up on the Loup in the semi-final but we maybe just lacked that wee bit of belief.
“Probably Down was our ceiling at that point.”
YET while supremacy had to be wrestled back from Burren after the turn of the decade, and breaking through the provincial glass ceiling continued to prove elusive, there had been a seismic shift in the mindset of a club on the move.
No one shot wonders, no big time Charlies. Kilcoo, everybody inside Pairc Eoghan Rua resolved, were here to stay.
“Standards – that’s the big thing changed.
“Even from the early days under Jim, there was a standard set. We would’ve went out the odd Saturday night then landed into training on a Sunday morning - when Jim came in, that stopped. You sort of knew you can’t be at your second best performance any more.
“Every year it probably ramped up a bit more, and once the standard was set you daren’t dip below it. Egos can very easily creep into a changing room, especially one that’s winning. But if standards ever dropped, somebody would pull you into line, whether that was Aidan [Branagan], Conor [Laverty] or some of the other older players.
“There’d have been a meeting and we’d have had it out.”
McEvoy, though, was more the arm round the shoulder type than the guy jumping down throats.
“Nobody listens to me anyway,” he laughs.
“Look, I keep the head down, train and play hard and encourage the guys but I’m not really one to give out. Luckily there’s a couple of guys there who do.
“Times have changed a lot too - young ones now are so hard to read. I’m twice the age of some of the guys who are playing, so for me to maybe try and have a word with somebody, I might not even know what I’m talking about.
“When I joined the senior panel, the vast majority of guys were tradesmen, working from eight ’til half four and then their evening was their own. Now guys are maybe studying, sometimes having to travel up from Belfast or wherever - the like of Aaron Branagan starts his classes at silly o’clock in the morning.
“So for me to say that somebody should be at training, maybe not knowing they have to study for an exam the next day… it’s a completely different landscape.”
And still the conveyor belt continues to roll, with emerging talent bolstering the Kilcoo ranks as thoughts seldom stray far from the future and ensuring the Magpies remain competitive no matter what.
From a personal perspective, McEvoy knows the end is closer than the beginning. Work circumstances, and the likelihood of being based in Dublin well into next year, could force a decision sooner rather than later.
But then those thoughts have crossed his mind before and here he is, still putting his shoulder to the wheel for the reigning All-Ireland champions, pushing the Magpies’ pursuit of a third Ulster title on-the-trot, in the final everybody wanted to see.
These days won’t last forever but, while they’re here, Gerard McEvoy is determined not to waste a second.
“For me, football’s a release, it always has been. Even coming up that road from Dublin, you be glad of it. Not every night’s all rosy - I’ve had plenty of bad nights, believe me. But I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t think I had something to offer.
“You look at the Kilmacud game, the All-Ireland… I still don’t think it has really sunk in. When we won Down in ’09 it was a real good time, you could go out and party, all your family’s there, your two brothers are playing. Now, it’s a different thing.
“I was on the field at Croke Park in February with Orla and my three girls. Those are special moments, and it brings something to them. Myself and Orla used to go and watch the All-Ireland club finals on Paddy’s Day, and you never thought Kilcoo would be there because these big teams were just so far removed from what we were.
“This is a golden era, but what’s happening now, it won’t happen all the time. We know that. Your time in the sun will come to an end some day.
“Hopefully it’s not just yet...”