By Shaun Casey
KILCOO are hoping they can call on Jerome Johnston on Sunday as they begin their Ulster Championship campaign with a trip to Brewster Park (3.30pm) against Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly.
The oldest of the three Johnston brothers hobbled off after eight minutes of play against Burren with what looked like a hamstring injury, as the Magpies retained their Down title three weeks ago.
The 31-year-old sharpshooter usually carries the main scoring threat in the Kilcoo attack, and Johnston will be a big miss for Karl Lacey’s side if he suffers a prolonged spell on the sidelines.
However, Kilcoo defender Aaron Branagan, who kicked a point in that showdown with rivals Burren, suggests that Johnston could be available for selection come the weekend as the teams battle it out for a spot in the last eight against Scotstown.
“Jerome hurt himself against Burren, but he was back the other night at training and he’s moving really well so he’s our only injury complaint really,” said the 33-year-old.
“Hopefully we’ll have a clean slate, that’s the big one in Ulster if you can keep that clean. Jerome would be a big miss and he’s a big miss in training even if he’s not there, but he’s also very vocal even when he’s not training.
“He’d still be in and around the forwards and keeping lads right so he’s never too far away and you can hear him.”
Kilcoo are expecting a tough test from familiar foes when they take on Derrygonnelly. The sides clashed in the 2019 Ulster semi-final when Branagan’s three-pointer helped them shade the contest by two points, 1-8 to 0-9.
However, when the sides renewed acquaintances in the 2021 Ulster final, it was all one-traffic as Kilcoo collected the Seamus McFerran Cup for the second time on their way to winning the All-Ireland crown.
Having collected their eleventh Down title in 12 seasons, Branagan is looking forward to yet another Ulster campaign, where “the shackles are off.”
“This will be our third time meeting them, so it’ll be a good game,” added Branagan. “We’ve played them three times and the first time was a really good battle and the second time we probably got the better of them.
“I’m sure they’ll have learned loads from the last time the same way we learned loads from the first time so it should be a good game.
“I think the shackles are off in Ulster slightly. Evey year to get out of Down can be very, very hard and Ulster is obviously very hard but it’s bonus territory, there’s no pressure on you.
“You’ve won what you set out to win at the start of the year by winning the Down Championship and everything else here is bonus territory.
“You can enjoy your football a lot more and you have no preconceived ideas of the lads you’re marking, you don’t know them so you don’t have that nervous energy beforehand so you can go out and express yourself.”