By Niall McCoy
MORE of the same or is someone ready to really challenge Kilcoo’s superiority? The league season would suggest that it may be the latter.
The black and white ribbons on the Frank O’Hare Cup are getting frayed by this stage given how regularly they adorn the trophy. For the record, the Magpies have won 10 of the last 11 runnings of the Down Senior Championship with a final defeat to Burren in 2018 proving the only blemish during that time.
It hasn’t always been easy with three of their last titles coming after real battles. In 2019 Warrenpoint missed a glorious goal chance that would have probably earned them the title while in 2021 they held off a Burren fightback. Last year they needed extra-time to triumph, the ‘Point again losing out.
Down boss Conor Laverty remains in their attack while Aidan Branagan, who has been helping out in the coaching side of things, appeared on the field during the league having previously retired and, as always, championship football creates a black and white beast.
That may be evident in their first game against recently-crowned league champions Carryduff. It isn’t knock-out football, but maybe the holders might want to deliver a message to a side tipped by many to have a real run.
The Belfast club met Kilcoo in the 2019 final, losing quite heavily, but manager Finnian Moriarty is getting a good tune out of them in his second year in charge with the club’s first senior men’s silverware providing a real confidence booster.
Joint captains Joe Flynn and James Guinness bring real leadership, while the likes of Daniel Guinness, Ronan Beattie and Josh Connery provide plenty of quality.
The only other side to finish above Kilcoo in the league rankings apart from champions Carryduff were a Loughinisland side that produced some stunning football this year.
Kevin Duffin is in charge and it’s a team-sheet that hasn’t altered too much in recent times. Rory Mason continues to excel, as does Dominic McClements and Stefan Mason. Dan Gordon is back for another run too and looks as fresh as a daisy.
Their campaign opens with a game against recently-crowned Division Two champions Ballyholland. Damien McCrink and Gordon’s former Down team-mate Mickey Walsh are in charge of the Harps. With the likes of Paul Murphy and Ronan Murtagh stepping back from the pitch to the coaching side of it after such brilliant service, it is a young Ballyholland team on show this season. Tradition dictates that they can trouble any team though and their livewire attack will be one to watch.
There are a number of derbies in the first round of the championship, including the meeting of Warrenpoint and Burren.
The ‘Point have had a few management changes this season, and they’ll enter as big underdogs against Jim McCorry’s side.
Burren have had a conveyor belt of brilliant underage teams coming through – they had 11 players in Down’s u-20 panel this season – but the veterans are still doing it too. Donal O’Hare, who is also coaching with Louth club Naomh Mairtin under manager Declan McCoy, is still plying his trade while Kevin McKernan is enjoying a new role as their goalkeeper.
There’s also a local derby in store when Saval meet Glenn. Saval enter this year’s championship as intermediate holders, but some of the focus is on manager Danny Hughes who has put himself forward for the vacant Cavan job. Hughes, and coach Stephen Kearney, have actually played some football for the senior side this season, the latter in nets, but they’ll be hoping that they won’t be called into action against their neighbours who are hoping to bounce back after an awful Division Two campaign.
Steven Poacher is back in charge of Mayobridge and they are moving rightly with a few players really moving into prominence. The likes of Daniel Bannon has nailed down a starting spot after a serious of brilliant defensive displays, but Corey Quinn remains in Australia even though he was recently in Derry for the World Games.
They start against a Bryansford side who endured a really difficult league campaign ending in relegation from the top flight. John Kennedy recently won a league title with Dromintee in Armagh (2021), so it would have been an unusual experience and he’ll be keen for a reaction.
Clonduff were unbeaten in their first six league matches of the season, but their form dropped from there with six defeats in their next 12 games. Adrian Cush and James Slater are in charge this season, and they have a big ask to lift the title for the first time since 2000. They have plenty of talent though and Bredagh presents a very winnable opener with the Cherryvale side also suffering relegation from Division One.
Saul and Downpatrick finished beside each other in Division Two and they both had a win apiece, but the return of Caolan Mooney from a long-term injury may give Downpatrick the edge.
Castlewellan and Longstone should also be a close affair with the Town finishing second in Division Two and the ‘Stone struggling in Division One.