KILCOO selector Conleth Gilligan admitted he feels the Ulster Senior Club Championship is wide open following his sides’ convincing win over Magherafelt to set up an Ulster semi-final with Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly.
Played in Newry’s Pairc Esler on Sunday afternoon Kilcoo arguably played their best five minute spell of football this season at the start of the game as they looked poised to put their opposition to the sword, but flattered to deceive, which the management team weren’t overly impressed about.
Aaron Branagan opened the scoring in the first minute, two minutes later midfielder Ryan McEvoy steadied himself to steer over a great score and by the sixth minute Darryl Branagan finished off a six-man move, which included a Conor Laverty flick-out, to give the Magpies an early 0-03 to 0-00 lead.
It was fantastic free-flowing football, Kilcoo pressed numbers forward in support and they got their reward and then they stopped. It’s not in Kilcoo’s nature to beat a team out the gates and as a result Magherafelt came at them.
“We had started badly in some of our games and we tried to get a decent start and we did get it today,” said Gilligan.
“But then it went the other way and we took our foot off the gas and allowed Magherafelt back into it and it came more of a nip and tuck game and us being a point up at half-time was probably reflective of how the first half went.”
Big Emmett McGuckin was a threat at the edge of the square and he opened Magherafelt account on nine minutes after clever one-twos’ between Patrick McLarnon and Shane Heavron.
The Derry champions were starting to take control and they had three efforts drop short into Martin McCourt’s arms before Cormac Murphy cut inside Miceal Rooney to fist over and Conor Kearns’ cracking point from the outside of his left boot had the sides level with 16 minutes played.
And they squandered a great chance to go ahead before Anthony Morgan was awarded a free to give Paul Devlin the simplest of frees to convert and put the Magpies back in front.
And to their credit, Kilcoo had the craft to edge ahead each time Derry had levelled the game
Big McGuckin had the sides’ level for the second time when he outjumped two Kilcoo defenders and despite being boxed in, he ploughed through the black and white jerseys and drilled over the bar for a magnificent point.
Again Kilcoo came back and captain Conor Laverty engineered a free for Devlin to avail of and his second converted free gave the Magpies the slenderest of leads going in at the break. Although before that they had a few nervy seconds when Darryl Branagan’s elbow caught Darren O’Neill on the face, but referee who was only metres away, issued a yellow card.
Magherafelt’s Conor Kearns and Kilcoo’s Aaron Branagan traded points in the opening minutes of the second half and Eugene Branagan stretched the lead to two points after he played a swooping one-two with Rooney before striking over.
Then came the killer blow as Eugene Branagan kicked long into Conor Laverty, who couldn’t believe the space he was afforded before offloading to the incoming Jerome Johnston, who from the edge of the square coolly stuck his shot into the far corner of the net. It was a sweet finish.
Jared Monaghan hit back with a point for Derry men but Kilcoo’s tails were up and captain Laverty curled his shot over the bar and Eugene Branagan bagged his second point and with 45 minutes played the Magpies had one foot in the semi-final and pleased the Kilcoo selector.
“It looked like one of those games that were going to go to right to the wire and then we got the goal and scored a point and that gave us the five-point breathing room, so we were able to sustain that onslaught at the end,” Gilligan said.
“Credit to Magherafelt they went heavy at it and they were a bit unfortunate.”
Laverty’s second point put Kilcoo 1-10 to 0-06 ahead and matters got worse for Magherafelt when wing-back Kearns picked up a black card.
Heavron narrowed the gap with a close-range free and substitute Michael Lynch went for goal with his quick free but hit the post although Cormac Murphy did grab his second point but there was no gallant comeback from the Derry side.
Instead Kilcoo saw the game out with some smart defending against, great goalkeeping and fortunate decision-making by referee Joe McQuillan.
Jerome Johnston picked off his first point following hard graft by Laverty, but
Magherafelt had the ball in the back of the net when McGuckin made a great fetch and laid off to corner-back Simon McElrlain who finished into the net but the referee called play back for a free, which they converted.
Kilcoo keeper Martin McCourt pulled off a great save to deny McGuckin in the dying minutes and the Magpies held out for victory.
It was a great win for the Magpies with captain Laverty, young McEvoy, Dylan Ward and Aaron Branagan particularly impressive and Gilligan praised their commitment and he was happy to get past the Derry champions.
“It is wide open and most teams will have a realistic fancy at it but today we looked no further than Magherafelt, it had been a while from a Down club beat a Derry team and that was partly in the background as well,” Gilligan said.
“Whenever you come out of Derry there is great expectation going into Ulster and that is why Magherafelt came here full of confidence. We are happy to be there for another round.
“One thing about them boys, they will give you everything and leave it all out there in training or in matches and whether you win or you lose the one thing that you will never question is their desire and their heart for Kilcoo.”
KILCOO: Martin McCourt, Niall Branagan, Aidan Branagan, Niall McEvoy, Anthony Morgan, Aaron Branagan (0-2), Miceal Rooney, Darryl Branagan (0-1), Ryan McEvoy (0-1), Eugene Branagan (0-2), Paul Devlin (0-2, 2f), Ryan Johnston, Dylan Ward, Jerome Johnston (1-01), Conor Laverty (0-2).
Subs: Justin Clarke for R Johnston (45’), Shealan Johnston for Rooney (51’).
MAGHERAFELT: Odran Lynch, Simon McErlian, Darren O’Neill, Guisseppe Lupari, Conor McCluskey, Fergal Duffin, Conor Kearns (0-2), Jared Monaghan (0-1), Daniel Heavron , Patrick McLaron, Shane Heavron (0-1, f), John Young, Anton McElhone, Cormac Murphy (0-2), Emmett McGuckin (0-3, 0-1f).
Subs: Michael Lynch for McLarnon (40’), Declan Martin for McElhone (41’), Conor Rafferty for Young (44’), Paul O’Kane for Kearns (49’, black card), Joe Keenan for Lupari (50’), Matthew Higgins for S Heavron (51’).
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).