By Michael McMullan
THIS Sunday, Conleith Gilligan will be plotting Kilcoo’s path once again as they aim to keep their hands on the Seamus McFerran Cup, which was put away with the club’s other silverware once the Down championship got off the ground.
It was a new season and time to get to work.
As joint-manager and having been Mickey Moran’s right-hand man last season, Gilligan is well placed to compare the standards of preparing a team now to back in his playing days.
Twenty years ago Conleith Gilligan was pulling the strings from centre forward as Ballinderry downed the famed Nemo Rangers to bring home the Andy Merrigan Cup.
It was an Errigal Ciaran team, after coming through three rounds against Crossmaglen, who wrestled their titles from them later that year.
“In terms of the preparation, it wouldn’t even be in the same conversation, football was so different then,” he said of the season when Ballinderry swept all before them.
“I think we watched a couple of clips of Nemo Rangers where you could get a video, so I suppose the standards of the way teams are preparing, it is through the roof…even at this stage in club level is off the scale compared to when I was playing.”
Gilligan was part of Ballinderry’s last Ulster winning team, in 2013, and feels the level club teams were preparing at had begun to ramp up.
“I think probably some teams do something and they get a bit of success and then the pressure is on everybody to replicate,” he offers on the increased levels of preparation.
“I think whenever social media and things started to take off and you saw and you heard what other teams are doing, I suppose that put pressure on everybody in the 2010, 2011…2013 and it just sky rocketed from there.”
When Gilligan called time on his club career, his last outing was a narrow defeat by an up and coming Glen team in 2018 with Michael Warnock landing the late winner with one of Gilligan’s seven points – of which two came to draw them level late one – deemed score of the game in the County Derry Post report on the game.
And since his retirement, he has always had a handle on the Derry club scene and after needing a Jerome Johnston goal to see off the Watties in last year’s Ulster semi-final, he knows what is coming down the tracks this weekend.
“I see a fair bit of them [Glen] and they won Derry at a canter and they were just so strong and they set the benchmarks for all the Derry clubs to try and replicate,” he said of Malachy O’Rourke’s side.
“They just have so many options and they can play the game anyway. If a team sets up defensive, they can break them down and if they want to play football, they will kick it and just they are all-round very good.”
Kilcoo needed a penalty shoot-out to see off Clonduff in the Down quarter-final with Warrenpoint pushing them every step of the way in extra-time on final day.
Since that, the champions have clocked up 5-28 across their commanding Ulster wins over Ballybay and Enniskillen Gaels.
Gilligan plays down the notion his side are peaking at the right time, but it more a case of the need for weekly improvement.
It was building on a good start against the Farney champions followed by taking advantage of having the considerable breeze in the first half against Enniskillen.
“I we got the goal at a good time and that gave us a platform,” he said. “They had to come out and leave gaps. It is just about trying to impose your style on the game as early as you can and hope that you can get on the scoreboard.”
Gilligan puts “great stock” in the experienced players welcoming the young guns into the Kilcoo camp as the find their feet.
Two such players who have lit up the season are Ryan McEvoy with his barnstorming runs from full back and Shealan Johnston with both his kickpassing from midfield and pace to get on the end of moved. Both came in as 18-year-olds with Anthony Morgan two years ago.
“Straight away they fitted in and I think a lot of that is down to how the older players deal with them,” Gilligan pointed out.
“There is a really good dynamic and even in training, the younger players would be pushing them on and the older boys would rise to it because there would be bragging rites about who will win the races.
“Even in training matches they will be training they will be driving each other on and the competitive nature.
“When the younger boys come in and are mad looking to start and anybody you has that jersey knows that if they play well then they stay and that is it.
“It is a great vote of confidence when you have players of the standard we have on the bench and they are holding them out and that breeds confidence in the young boys too.”
One of the older hands is new Down manager Conor Laverty who has popped up as the ball winner inside to lay off the ball for runners like Ryan Johnston to finish moves to the net.
Laverty is joint-captain with Aidan Branagan and had the “blessing” of the management to throw his lot in with the county.
“The one thing Conor has is the incredible ability to juggle an awful lot of stuff,” Gilligan said, insisting that all things Down are on the outside of Kilcoo’s continued drive for success. Inside the camp, it’s full steam ahead with the club.
“During all our time here, he has had Down u-20s, he was with Monaghan and he has a serious ability to compartmentalise the jobs and he never misses a single thing and I mean never.
“Kilcoo comes first and even with what is happening now, it is exactly the same. He has an incredibly understanding wife.”