Ulster Club SFC final
Kilcoo v Glen
Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 1pm
By Michael McMullan
WHEN Conor Glass kicked his ‘45 over the bar to put Glen ahead for the first time, early in extra-time, the Derry men looked to have turned the final corner.
Kilcoo almost won last year’s semi-final in normal time until Emmett Bradley flicked Ciaran McFaul’s lob over the bar.
It was that sort of game. You score. We score. And two perfectly matched teams were deadlocked until Paul Devlin took advantage of Connlan Bradley’s misdirected kick-out and Jerome Johnston hammered to the net.
That’s how close it was. One moment decided a tactical arm wrestle and it’s hard to see anything different on Sunday. Kilcoo’s comfortable win over Enniskillen and Glen’s struggle to hold off Cargin are irrelevant – totally irrelevant.
Strip the semi-finals back. Cargin – bulging with nous – are Antrim champions six times in eight seasons. The fact Glen left 2-10 behind them – of which 2-7 was very scoreable – tells a different story.
It was Kilcoo’s ruthlessness when Enniskillen were rocking in the face of a strong breeze left the Gaels with too big an interval deficit for an Eoin Beacom led rally to make any real impact.
When this year’s draw was made, a rematch was always on the cards. In terms of the status of the clubs and the fact the All-Ireland champions are going for three Ulster titles in a row, it creates the false narrative of a blockbuster.
It will be, but not the free flowing type. It will be chess with a capital C. It will be a game decided like last year – on the bounce of a ball, on a decision, a moment of magic or a mistake. For Glen and Kilcoo fans, it’s going to be a tough hour.
Glen’s unsung hero Conleth McGuckian commented how valuable their Errigal Ciaran battle was after a comfortable journey though Derry again. And he was right. It’s only when staring down the barrel of defeat that you know how thick your skin is.
Much like their battle over St Eunan’s last season, the Cargin game was about Glen getting over the line by whatever means possible.
When you talk about thick skin, Kilcoo are a case study. Their Down pathway was littered with landmines, but they do what winners do – they hang on.
And like the Manchester United side under Fergie, if you chase every lost cause then the door will always be open wide enough to step through.
Malachy O’Rourke will have his fingers crossed this week that Conor Glass, Conor Convery and Eunan Mulholland come through their knocks from the win over Cargin.
A look across Kilcoo’s wins over Ballybay and Enniskillen highlight the value of Darryl Branagan as a regular again. Injury reduced him to 26 substitute minutes against Glen last year before being hooked again in extra time.
He has been their transition king in Ulster so far. His inclusion has brought more kicking to their game. The same can be said for Shealan Johnston and Paul Devlin in the middle third.
Sunday’s winners will lay their foundation in the opening quarter and it was Branagan’s possession that stamped their authority against Ballybay enough to leave the Farney men also playing catch-up.
A dozen (including four he scored) of the scores they’ve amassed in Ulster have come through the hands of Ceilum Doherty. Micéal Rooney has also been immense in the middle third with 1-7 to show from play.
If last season was the Jerome Johnston scoring show, it’s brother Ryan who is their leading light. You lose count of the amount of times he has came off the shoulder of Conor Laverty inside. Kilcoo’s second man in their attack is the most dangerous.
And the fact they’ve reached an Ulster final without the full imprint of Eugene Branagan speaks volumes.
Of Glen’s 14-87 tally from play in the championship this season, a staggering 6-26 came from the Doherty brothers Ethan (3-11), Alex (4-8) and Jack (0-7).
It’s the value away from his scoring that could see Ethan being tracked by Eugene Branagan. A Branagan victory here would tip the scales.
Jack Doherty was the shining light in Glen’s quarter-final win over Magherafelt – their only test in Derry – and forcing Darryl Branagan to defend more that he attacks it will be another marker.
Add in a potential duel between speedsters Tiernan Flanagan and Shealan Johnston and you soon get the picture of how Sunday’s Ulster final is going to come down to which set of players can impose themselves on their opposite number.
Darryl Branagan’s form will leave Glen feeling the loss of Ciaran McFaul in a real sense of the word for the first time.
The bookies cannot separate the teams. The narrative after the semi-finals point to Kilcoo being better than last year and it’s hard to disagree with that. But silver isn’t won until final day.
Sunday comes down to the smallest of margins. Even the throw-ins. Whoever gets hands on the leather has the tools to keep the ball for an eternity. Just ask Sleacht Néill. Glen kept the ball for the guts of a combined eight minutes in the opening stages of both halves of the Derry final. That’s game management at its very best.
Then, when you look at Micéal Rooney’s second half point against Enniskillen, it was one Paul Devlin’s kickpasses to switch the play before a series of quick hands saw the ball recycled across for Devlin to feed Rooney.
Calling this game is impossible. The chance of extra-time and penalties is very, very real. And neutrals will be crying out for that sort of drama. Maybe, just maybe, Kilcoo by a whisker, but it’s best to keep the money in your pocket.
PATHS TO THE FINAL
Kilcoo 2-12 Clonduff 0-4, Kilcoo 3-10 Ballyholland 0-8, Kilcoo 0-11 Clonduff 1-8 AET (Kilcoo won on penalties), Kilcoo 1-9 Mayobridge 0-4, Kilcoo 1-13 Warrenpoint 0-15 AET, Kilcoo 2-14 Ballybay 1-7, Kilcoo 3-14 Enniskillen 1-9
Glen 2-15 Claudy 1-6, Glen 1-20 Banagher 0-11, Glen 0-14 Swatragh 1-9, Glen 3-11 Ballinascreen 1-7, Glen 1-14 Magherafelt 0-11, Glen 2-12 Newbridge 0-4, Glen 1-12 Sleacht Néill 0-7, Glen 3-10 Errigal Ciaran 1-12, Glen 1-10 Cargin 0-8
Kilcoo Paul Devlin 0-20 (17f, 1 ’45) Ryan Johnston 3-6 Jerome Johnston 2-5 (2 pen, 3f, 1m)
Glen Danny Tallon 4-20 (15f, 2 pen, 2m) Ethan Doherty 3-11 Alex Doherty 4-8
IN a game that promises to head towards the cusp of extra time and beyond, here are some of the potential match-ups that could shape the game.
Ethan Doherty v Eugene Branagan
ETHAN Doherty is the man to make Glen’s running game tick with 3-11 to his name – all from play – and a directness that creates panic. If it’s not Micéal Rooney he finds as his direct opponent, it could very well be a start for Eugene Branagan with the role of living in Doherty’s shadow.
Michael Warnock v Ryan Johnston
RYAN Johnston has been the fulcrum of all things attacking for Kilcoo this season and links well as the late runner off brother Jerome or Conor Laverty when there is a direct ball inside. On the other side, Warnock has enjoyed another fine season and will a central role here to stamp Glen’s authority on the game.
Darryl Branagan v Jack Doherty
AFTER a summer in America, Jack Doherty returned refreshed and his pace against Magherafelt in the Derry quarter-final got his season up and running. Kilcoo have that type of energy in abundance. Darryl Branagan’s control of opening quarter against Ballybay is their trademark and Doherty must force him to defence. The winner here tips the scales significantly.