IT has been said that Kilcoo is all about football, farming and faith but Aaron Branagan bucks the trend: He doesn’t do farming.
He does do football of course and successive Magpies’ managers have put their faith in the experienced and versatile clubman who has amassed a haul of county medals to go with his Ulster double and the All-Ireland he won in 2021. Karl Lacey was appointed Kilcoo manager at the start of this season and Branagan says the Donegal native has brought in “a whole new freshness for everyone”.
“It has been amazing with Karl so far,” he said.
“It’s a side of professionalism that we hadn’t touched into and no one wants the year to end, it’s been that enjoyable.
“It’s a totally different realm in how we look at games and how we train, the level of intensity we’re going at in terms of our training, our gym work, recovery… Everything we do is as close as you could get to being professional and that’s brilliant because the boys are buzzing going to training because they know their bodies are ready for it.
“They know that if they’re playing well they’re going to get on. That’s the thing with Karl: It doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you’re performing, you’re coming in.”
On Sunday the Down champions begin the Ulster Club Senior Championship against Fermanagh’s Derrygonnelly in what is the third recent meeting of these clubs at provincial level.
The first game, a semi-final in 2019, was nip-and-tuck but, thanks to 1-1 from Branagan, Kilcoo got across the line by two points. The second, the 2021 final, is one the Ernemen would like to forget. They never got going at all and the 16-point drubbing they took that day bordered on a humiliation.
“The first game was tight and we realised how strong they were,” said Branagan.
“We were far better prepared the second time. We were ready for it and we know what we’re up against, we know what we’re getting on Sunday. They’re a very strong, physical outfit, they’re a lot bigger than us so we’ll have to play our game to the best of our ability. You can see by their performances in their own championship this year that they mean business – you don’t keep coming into Ulster if you’re not in good form and you learn every time you’re in.
“They’ll have learned about us the same way as we’ve learned about them.”
Playing to the best of their ability is the Kilcoo hallmark. No matter who they face on the pitch or what potential distractions there are off it, the Magpies remain among the most consistent sides in the country.
Last season Kilcoo won comfortably enough against Ballybay and Enniskillen Gaels but, despite another 1-1 haul for Branagan, Derry champions Glen had their number in the Ulster final and won by six points. They aim to get their title back and whether they start as defending champions or not, Branagan says the Kilcoo mindset is the same.
“The first goal we set every year is to win Down and then we take it from there,” he said.
“You have to be fresh every year. Every year there’s a club in your own county trying to pip you and then everybody wants to be the kingpins of Ulster.
“At the minute that’s Glen and every other team is thinking: ‘Right this is the time to try and beat them’. When you go to Ulster you want to win but you just have to try your best and hope for the best as well.”