By Alan Rodgers
A DECADE ago Kilcoo’s long wait for Down glory finally ended when they captured the county title after 72 years.
It was a win which has sparked an unprecedented period of dominance. Now, as they reflect on eight domestic crowns, the burning desire is to cash in the chips by virtue of an historic Ulster Club triumph.
The Magpies’ relationship with the provincial title-race has been one filled with frustrations. Final losses to Crossmaglen in 2012 and Sleacht Néill in 2016 have merely served to increase their sense of disappointment.
Now, in 2019, a new optimism is evident and the hope is that they it will be third time lucky when they take on Naomh Conaill in Sunday’s showpiece.
Conor Laverty has been one of their main attackers throughout that time. However, he maintains that those past events will have no bearing on what happens next for the dominant Down side.
“For our club, it would be a nice recognition of the hard work that has gone down over this past 10 years. As a squad and players we’re just looking at that next game.
“It’s a challenge and will take a massive effort to get over the line. Hopefully we can do ourselves justice on the day.
“We’re playing well as a team this year. Individually, it’s grand, and the key factor is whichever team is going to work the hardest on the day,” he said.
“In the second half particularly against Derrygonnelly we were very economical going forward. That was pleasing but there’s a lot of improvement needed still.”
Victories over new Derry champions, Magherafelt, and Derrygonnelly so far in this year’s competition have highlighted Kilcoo’s talents.
Much of their progress this year has been attributed to one of the top club managers in Ulster over the past two decades. The appointment of Mickey Moran for the Down side was one of the most noteworthy of the 2018/2019 close season.
The Glen, Maghera clubman guided Slaughtneill to Derry and Ulster glory in the past few years and is aiming to work the oracle with Kilcoo.
His contribution to the progress of the team this year has been widely acclaimed within the Kilcoo squad and club.
However, even with that, Mickey Moran has gone about the job of preparing them with the same levels of commitment, attention to detail and modesty which has been a hallmark of his managerial career at both club and county level.
“Nothing else matters for us other than who performs on the day. As a club and a squad we were delighted that Mickey Moran has come in this year as manager. He has brought us onto a new level,” he adds.
“His man management skills are fantastic. He’s honest and expects that from his team. He has installed great belief in us and expects us to go out and carry out the gameplan that he has set up for us.”
But there’s a wider story, too, and it’s perhaps less well-known. Everyone knows Conor Laverty as a talented attacker who was the mainstay of Down teams, and now captains Kilcoo in this, their third provincial decider.
Less well known is his interest, involvement and appreciation of coaching. The origins of that can be traced back two decades to the time when the club really put a focus on the development of its players.
The dividends of that are now coming to full fruition and he’s keen to stress the acknowledge the contribution of so many in the process which has led them to this point.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without the good work that has been done in our club by coaches over the years. A few of the players coach and it’s only right that they should be going back and helping.”
Whether or not Kilcoo do finally reap the dividends of that the past decade has demanded remains to be seen. The one thing for certain is that the incentives which have presented themselves throughout that time and longer will be still very much in evidence entering 2020, just as they were entering that breakthrough season of 2009.
Conor Laverty has been around enough corners with Down and Kilcoo to appreciate what these big occasions mean. No wonder, then, that the excitement is the same now as it was when he began an illustrious career.
“As a player, you love having that challenge of going out onto the field. Nothing beats playing and buzz of the build-up to a game and during the match. But it’s also good to go back to U-6 and U-8 teams and do that coaching.
“I’m the coaching officer within the club so you have to be out and about. I do generally enjoy coaching younger players. It’s about giving something back to the club.
“At one stage we were in Division Two and Division Three and thankfully the work is coming through today.”