Another war of attrition awaits - and nobody is more comfortable in the trenches than Kilcoo
Morgan Fuels Down SFC semi-final: Kilcoo v Clonduff (Sunday, Pairc Esler, 5.30pm)
JUST as Carryduff looked to have Kilcoo where they wanted them a few weeks back, so Clonduff must still be wondering how last year’s Down quarter-final got away from them.
On a Monday night in Newry, it looked as though the perfect ambush was about to unfold, the Magpies’ Down, Ulster and All-Ireland title defences coming to an end at the hands of their closest rivals.
No victory could have tasted so sweet. Chastened by the Magpies a month earlier - on the wrong end of a shocking 14-point defeat, only four points scored – the Hilltown men got almost everything right at the second time of asking.
Wary of falling into Kilcoo’s counter-attacking trap again, Clonduff sat deep and shut down any space. Their occasional deployment of the long ball into Arthur McConville was perfectly timed, Charlie Carr’s delivery on the money as the Yellas got their noses in front and stayed there.
Indeed, the first time Kilcoo led was when Daryl Branagan pointed two minutes into added time. A staring contest unfolded in extra-time before the Magpies prevailed on penalties, Niall Kane denying Aidan Carr to complete the great escape.
Sunday’s semi-final is expected to be every bit as cagey, Clonduff the latest to try and take Karl Lacey’s side to the limit. Mayobridge tried but came up short, before Carryduff cranked it up a notch until their challenge capitulated in a flurry of red and yellow cards.
Outfoxed by Kilcoo in the first round, Finnian Moriarty’s men went for athleticism when the clubs came together again in the last eight – the introduction of Gareth Henderson and Conor McCullough, and Daniel Guinness’s deployment on Ryan Johnston, successfully stifling the Magpies attack.
Carryduff led 0-4 to 0-1 as half-time loomed, and should have been further ahead. Four wides and a spurned goal chance, Kane denying Daniel Guinness, in a game of such fine margins is simply not going to cut it if Kilcoo are to be toppled.
If you get on top, that advantage has to hammered home. When it isn’t, anxiety creeps in, the knowledge that a sting in the tail is just around the corner. In the space of 30 seconds in added time, Cian Clinton was shown a second yellow, before Daryl Branagan sent over a score with the last kick of the half.
Carryduff still held the upper hand on the scoreboard, but you sensed their opportunity had gone. The city men managed just one more score as the Magpies moved ahead and finished the job.
Clonduff might have watched with interest, but will have learnt nothing they didn’t already know.
Ciaran McBride has gone, replaced by another former Tyrone forward in Adrian Cush – their third in-a-row from the Red Hand county following Mark Harte and Adrian O’Donnell’s stint at the Hilltown helm – and once again it is their neighbours who stand in the way.
Cush - whose Magherafelt side fell to the Magpies in the 2019 Ulster Championship – has built on Clonduff on a solid base, with Paddy Branagan, Padraig Wilson, Ross Carr and Conor Murray offering plenty of legs around the experience of men like Darren O’Hagan.
In the absence of Barry O’Hagan, Stephen McConville has stepped up to the plate impressively so far.
As for Kilcoo, the loss of Dylan Ward has robbed them of a combative edge around the middle. Eoin Donnelly may not have been so prominent the last day had Ward been there for company.
Paul Devlin is ready to return and could be called upon, given how toothless the Magpies looked at times against Carryduff, while the experienced Aaron Branagan is hoping to finally put an injury-hit year behind him – though Sunday could come too soon.
Anything but another low-scoring war of attrition in Newry would be a major surprise. And nobody is more comfortable in the trenches than Kilcoo.