Kilcoo unchained as Ulster club championship comes to the boil

All-Ireland champions stepped it up at the weekend and, if form holds, are on a collision course with formidable Glen

The Ulster football championship is coming nicely to the boil.

Last weekend’s quarter-finals provided plenty of incident, including two penalty shoot-outs with victory going to the underdogs, Enniskillen and Cargin. The other two matches saw one epic, as Glen eventually subdued Errigal Ciarán, and one powerful restatement by All-Ireland champions Kilcoo.

This sets the stage for a resumption of the Kilcoo-Glen rivalry in the provincial final, as the two favourites are on opposite sides of the draw, allowing that their opponents, Enniskillen and Cargin having defied the odds already, might not co-operate with consensus expectations.

When the Down and Derry champions played last year in the Ulster semi-finals, the match went to extra time – as so many of Kilcoo’s matches in last year’s championship did: Ulster semi-final and both their All-Ireland semi-final and final all required overtime.


Before last year’s match, people were freely suggesting that the winners of Kilcoo-Glen were likely All-Ireland champions, which is as it turned out albeit not in a linear sweep. It took a goal in the last seconds of the final to beat Kilmacud Crokes.

The scorer of that priceless contribution was Jerome Johnston, who had also delivered a similar blow in the match against Glen.

Should the clubs meet again in this season’s Ulster final, both look to be improved. Glen walloped Slaughtneil in the Derry final by virtually the same margin as last year despite the redoubtable opposition’s determination to make amends.

A number of their players have been part of Derry’s first Ulster title in 24 years and Conor Glass is now an All Star.

Despite being without last season’s Player of the Championship Eugene Branagan, who was suspended, Kilcoo looked liberated on Sunday after the claustrophobic confines of the Down championship, which they won for the 10th time in 11 years – beating Warrenpoint in last month’s final (yes, after extra time).

They ran a decent Ballybay team, who had defeated Crossmaglen a week previously, ragged in a match that was only fleetingly in the balance from the first score of the afternoon, a mark converted by Jerome Johnston.

In fact the most compelling subplot surrounding the match came from the Johnston family, as Jerome senior had managed Ballybay to the Monaghan title followed by the defeat of Cross after which he walked away to avoid the clash with his home club and the extended family.

His son professed uncertainty when assessing his father’s actions although he did feel that he had done the right thing.

“I was actually just looking at my own son Lár this morning and when I put myself in that position, it’s hard because he [Jerome senior] had three sons and six nephews involved. I think he did the right thing in terms of being true to himself. Unless someone’s been in that position, it’s really hard to say.”

He did point out that his father had made clear that he wouldn’t put himself in a situation where he had to take on his family. The matter didn’t crystallise until after the quarter-final because Ballybay had been considered outsiders.

“We knew the whole time that he had decided a while ago. It wasn’t mentioned; it was probably in the back of our heads but not something we spoke about. Anyone who knows Daddy, it’s one game at a time! He’d drive that into you at home.

“I don’t actually live in the home house. I’d be hopping in and out. It was a tough week for him, my mum and everyone because it was getting so much attention. Anywhere you looked it seemed to be the first thing coming up. It was one of those things you tried to nullify as much as you could but it was still in the back of your head.”

Johnston felt Sunday’s match was something of a step into the unknown, given Ballybay’s performance in the quarter-final.

“The nation was able to see that last Saturday when they played Crossmaglen, six-time All-Ireland winners and played really, really well. We knew what we were coming up against not having had a competitive – or any type of – game in four weeks, even a challenge game.

“So it was about finding our feet, settling in and seeing where we could take it.”

In the initial stages Kilcoo looked sharp and purposeful. They shut down Ballybay’s attacks but also created their own chances, which they converted with a high rate of accuracy, 70 per cent.

Were it not for a brief revival by their opponents that levelled the match midway through the first half, they would have monopolised the contest. Asked does he believe that the team is moving up the gears now that they have left the county behind, he contextualises the difficulty of winning matches in Down.

“Yeah but the thing is, some of those teams we’ve played four times this year – in the league before you even play them in the championship. As well as that, we had played teams earlier in the championship and the more and more you play teams, especially in such quick succession, the closer they’re going to get to you.

“It’s hard to know. The job was to get the win and we’ve done that. We’ll look back and review it and take it from there. It’s hard to say from one performance where exactly we are.”

Those paying attention will have their suspicions.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times