BY DAN O’MUIRIGH
KILCOO have found a home in the Ulster Club Championship as they prepare to make their seventh appearance in the provincial series this decade when they welcome Magherafelt to Newry on Sunday.
The Magpies’ only absence since 2012 was last year when they lost their county crown to Burren, but they have regained their status as the Down kingpins to claim their 17th title, a record unrivalled in the Mourne county.
A battle-hardened Kilcoo outfit has become synonymous with the prestigious Ulster Championship.
That grit was extended to their own county championship this season as they had to fight hard in their victories over An Ríocht, Rostrevor, Burren, Clonduff and Warrenpoint in the Down decider.
For assistant manager Conleith Gilligan, regaining the Down Championship was of vital importance.
“When you’re on top for a while and you lose your crown, it does hurt. It rarely happens that you get it back just as quick,” said Gilligan, who acts as Mickey Moran’s number two.
“The players have all bought into it again and we are back stronger. It’s something they really, really wanted; to be back as Down champions again. It’s something that they pride themselves on in Kilcoo.
Getting that was very important for the group.
“When it comes to Ulster, it’s a different competition. There’s a lack of familiarity between players and the football tends to be more open and flowing. They tend to be better matches in Ulster and it all bodes into a good weekend’s football.”
While competing in Ulster is a familiar battle ground for Kilcoo, their opposition this time around presents a new and unknown challenge.
Magherafelt stunned everyone as they came out on out on top as the underdogs in an extremely competitive Derry Championship. As a Ballinderry man with plenty of knowledge of the game in the Oakleaf county, Gilligan is wellplaced to comment on the threat this week poses.
“Kilcoo have been in Ulster plenty, but it’s Magherafelt’s first year,” said Gilligan.
“We’re absolutely wary of them. Any team that comes out of Derry fancies themselves in the Ulster Club and rightly so. Once they get out, they tend to be very, very competitive and win it more often than not.
“From that perspective, Magherafelt will really fancy it and they are there on merit. They’ve beaten all the top teams in Derry this year. They’ll be coming into it full of confidence and we’re very wary. We’ll have to be at our best to beat them on the day.”
However, it is a challenge that Kilcoo are looking forward to and Gilligan backs his side’s preparation going into the game.
“We had a good break between games to give everyone a chance to clear up injuries. Everything has went really well and we’re happy enough going into the game.
“We’re really excited for it. The Ulster Championship is probably the most premier competition in Ireland. It’s an incredible competition and we’re really excited to be at it.”
The Ulster Championship is one that has ultimately eluded Kilcoo. They have lost two finals, in 2012 against Crossmaglen and 2016 against Slaughtneill, while falling short in semi-finals against Cross in 2013 and Ballinderry in 2015.
For Kilcoo, however, the focus first and foremost for the 2019 season was on reclaiming the county title before another stint at Ulster.
“For us, it was about getting back to basics and trying to win a Down Championship, and then it’s one game at a time, this time Magherafelt,” Gilligan explained.
“It’s one we are prepared for and looking forward to. In these games, you have to perform and do it on the day and if you do, you have every chance of winning. If you don’t perform, especially at that level, it doesn’t end well. That’s our focus going into the game, just getting a performance.”
However, it is always a positive sign to be involved in the latter stages of the championship season, and it is something that Kilcoo and Gilligan relish.
“It comes full circle. Football starts in January, in the dark, the wet and mud and you know you’re having a decent season when you’re back into that again.
“It’s a time of year that the players absolutely love because they’ve worked so hard and they’re now getting to the stage of the big games and big crowds. It’s what everybody wants. If you’re playing football at this time of year, something is going okay.”