By Michael McMullan
A LOOK at Kilcoo’s starting team from their win over Enniskillen. From the games they’ve played across the Down and Ulster championship, scores are dripping across every line.
Niall Kane’s four points all came from placed balls. Every bother person has scored from play.
Eugene Branagan didn’t start, but add in his championship tally of 1-5, a Sean Óg McCusker goal and two Dylan Ward points early in the Down championship.
Paul Devlin’s left peg has burled 20 points, with all but one placed balls. The same can be said for all but one of Jerome Johnston’s 2-5, the man who kicked goals for fun last year.
They’ve still been pivotal to what goes on around them.
The rest of Kilcoo’s championship tally is a spread of scores that backs up their attacking wave that score from every corner. Sunday’s opponents Glen are the same, with only Connor Carville and Ryan Dougan yet to get on the scoresheet.
Aaron Branagan puts Kilcoo’s versatility down to practice with many of their players having played in attack at underage.
He wears number four and even popped up in advanced position to kick over an advanced mark in their win over Enniskillen.
“If you look at most of our defenders, they are both footed and are confident at shooting,” said Branagan.
“There are a lot of boys who were forwards and they transition into defence as they’ve got older, so they have that in their locker.”
In an parish where football is religion, they practice shooting at training. Night after night, so when they pop up in the scoring zone the jersey number is irrelevant. They can all have a pop.
A personal trainer by trade, he fully understands the engines the Kilcoo players have purring under those black and white jersies. They know if they make attack from defence, they can pull the trigger and are confident the legs will take them back to base. And so the cycle continues.
Another ingredient, one far up the list, is the simple desire to succeed and follow in the line of championship winners.
Branagan speaks of getting two players, three at best, from their underage to top up the senior squad. That does the trick. It keeps things fresh.
And it’s not always the star player who makes it the whole way. His profession is based on physique and development. Everybody’s body clock is different.
At underage the best players are those who develop young. Some come through, some don’t. But that’s okay in Kilcoo.
In many cases, mind-set is the most important. A willingness to learn and stick at their game.
“You could look at our (Kilcoo senior) team and you could say that seven or eight of our starters were never the standout players in their own team going through,” Branagan outlines.
“They were really hard workers, put their head down and worked hard to their game.”
Those players, in Branagan’s opinion, will catch up someday. He dismissed the stance of a player not tearing it up by minor age as “never going to make it” when football moves higher up the food chain.
“In our club, it’s never seen as that,” he stresses. “As you are long as you were willing to keep going and prove yourself at the thirds and the seconds, then you are going to get your chance with the seniors.”
All it takes is a new manager or a fresh look and it’s the break needed. He uses the example of Micéal Rooney who didn’t nail down a regular spot until he was 25.
Branagan describes Rooney’s All-Ireland winning season as “exceptional”, one that will forever be remembered for clawing Craig Dias’ goal chance off the line when Kilmacud were destined to blow Kilcoo’s flickering candle of hope out on All-Ireland final day.
“Nowadays, the majority of younger lads, they’ll get to 22 they are like “I’m out of here, I am never getting on this” but Micéal Rooney struck at it and I see him as one of the best defenders we have,” Branagan continued.
Kilcoo’s underage production line has served them well. Aaron Branagan describes his underage group, that had Paul Devlin as captain, as “good.”
The All-Ireland Féile winning team his brother Darryl was on was a “freak” with players like Aaron Morgan, Niall Kane, Ryan and Jerome Johnson. But not every group was all singing and dancing.
“Then you have my brother Niall’s team that had Micéal Rooney, Eugene (Branagan), Doc (Ceilum Doherty) and Dylan (Ward).
“They were playing in the B championships, something you would never have seen, but we got some of the best players because they stuck with it.”
When you assemble all the pieces, it creates a group that are 60 minutes away from a third Ulster title, after craving for one for so long.
A look at their Ulster games and even the Down county final, some of their goals have been the by-product of Darryl Branagan or Shealan Johnston kicking a direct ball, Jerome Johnston or Conor Laverty being on the end of it before the second runner does the real damage.
Other goals come from creating an overlap. But, has the Kilcoo style changed this year? Aaron Branagan has his say.
“Things have changed and every game changes.” he said, after taking a couple of seconds to process the question.
“People think we have a one size fits all approach. You have to adapt to what the game is, to the players you are playing against, or even the weather.
“Against Enniskillen they were coming against a serious breeze, so we tried out best to hem them in and our forwards backed themselves to get the pressure on.
“Our game changes all the time. We are good at transition and we all back ourselves as good kickers,” he continues, comfortably, as if shooting the breeze over a cuppa.
“People say it is defensive football, but it is defensive because the team playing against you is defensive.
“You look at the best Dublin teams, they are as defensive as anyone but because we are up north, it gets a bit more highlighted.”
One of the main outlets in the attacking third is the evergreen Conor Laverty, currently mixing his role as Down manager with pulling the defences of Ulster out of shape.
So, what’s it like to play in a team with Conor Laverty? Aaron needs no time to answer.
“Conor is a natural leader in all aspects, “came the immediate response. “He can see a lot of things going on; make a lot of passes people don’t see and create space that people don’t see
“He doesn’t need to be the Conor Laverty he was at 25 years of age, but he has the brain that no amount of training can give you.
“It is fantastic to play with someone like Conor, because he can open a lot of things for us, with runs when he is pulling men out of the road that you wouldn’t even notice.”