Andy Watters: Kilcoo must ensure they're remembered for their deeds, not their words

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

Finest hour. Kilcoo celebrate winning the All-Ireland club championship
Finest hour. Kilcoo celebrate winning the All-Ireland club championship

I MET this fella a few years ago, I knew he had played a bit of football but didn’t know a big pile more.

One day I ran into a guy from the same club and, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I’d been talking to a lad and asked did he know him etc, etc.

He knew him well.

“He was our man-marker,” he told me in almost reverential tones, adding the ultimate compliment for a man-marker that he was: “A treacherous wee so-and-so”.

He was the man sent to mark the opposition’s best forward and he did whatever he had to stop him. He got a few smacks in the gub for his trouble over the years and he got a few medals too.

If you’d met the guy we were talking about you’d have said butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth but, there you are, another example of white line fever.

A combination of red mist and white line fever descended on Pairc Esler, Newry on Sunday night in the latter stages of Kilcoo’s Down championship semi-final against Clonduff.

Kilcoo were all over them in the first half but Clonduff made a game of it in the second half until the reigning champions scored a second goal which killed the game off.

The real drama, which we could have done without, was still to come.

Darren O’Hagan, who had led the second half fightback for Clonduff, ran onto a ball near the stand and saw Niall Branagan in his way. He put his head down and went full-pelt into the Kilcoo man-marker with a shoulder that would, had it connected with your front door, probably have sent it, hinges and all, out through your kitchen window and into the garden.

But Branagan took the hit and then he raised the stakes. As O’Hagan ran on, the Kilcoo defender caught up with him and landed a straight left hand that felled the former Down defender.

Read more: 

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Four red cards as Kilcoo see off Clonduff to reach Down championship decider

I don’t condone Niall Branagan’s actions, nor do I advocate what he did, Darren O’Hagan, who was involved in the fighting that raged on the pitch and off it afterwards, spent that night in A&E and had to take the next two days off work.

But I do understand how that can happen. It’s sport, we’re not robots, sometimes passion takes over - look at Rory McIlroy in the non-contact environs of the Ryder Cup last week.

County, province and country, Kilcoo have won the lot but that hunger is still there and they still play like a team desperate to prove themselves and do whatever is needed to win. O’Hagan had challenged Branagan physically and he reacted physically and emphatically and was sent off, as he should have been.  

So I get that.

But I don’t get sledging (verbally abusing an opponent).

Last Sunday night's game was marred by four sendings off near the end
Last Sunday night's game was marred by four sendings off near the end

A couple of minutes later, O’Hagan was sent off himself after more fighting broke out. As he made his way off the field it did appear that someone on the Kilcoo bench said something to him. From the press box, with all the commotion going on I didn’t hear what was said and Kilcoo have categorically denied that any of their players made the vile comments anonymously attributed to them on social media.

I have no reason to doubt that. Over the last few years I have met several of the Kilcoo players, management and committee members and I have found them all to be very decent people. 

But accusations of on-field sledging have followed this Kilcoo side around like a bad smell.

In my experience, sledging on a football field is the preserve of players who are out of their depth and use it to camouflage their weaknesses. All the verbals are intended to mask that they’re not good enough, not fit enough, or not really up for the battle. 

Kilcoo are none of the above so there’s no reason for them to stoop to that level.

This is a terrific Kilcoo side.

Coming from their outpost way out in the Mourne Mountains, they are now looking forward to a 12th county final in-a-row (they’ve won 10 of the previous 11) and also have two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland championship behind them.

On Sunday night you couldn’t help but marvel at some of their football, particularly in the first half. Clonduff tried to run through them but found the Magpies too quick and too sharp in the tackle, they tried to go long and couldn’t do that either. When Kilcoo got their hands on the ball they used it brilliantly, cutting their opponents to shreds with lightning counterattacks and superb finishing.

The sequence for Jerome Johnston’s first goal was: kick-out, 60-metre kick-pass, perfectly-weighted handpass, unstoppable shot.

And then, when Clonduff came back at them, Kilcoo had the resilience to dig in and ride out the storm. Sean Og McCusker’s goal meant the game was over by the time O’Hagan and Branagan clashed near the stand.  

For over a decade Kilcoo have ruled supreme in their county and over the last five years have developed into one of the best club sides in the country.

Accusations of sledging tarnish the good name of a club that is having success in men’s and ladies’ competitions. Mud sticks and they’re an easy target now so, like any group of footballers, the Kilcoo players would be well advised to keep their mouths closed and let their football do the talking.

This brilliant Magpies side must ensure it's remembered for its deeds, not its words.