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‘It's been a dream in our club for many years’: Kilcoo and Ballygunner chase All-Ireland glory

Kilcoo and Ballygunner are vastly different clubs but they share a common goal.

Updated Jan 28th 2022, 9:23 PM

KILCOO

THERE WERE NO wild celebrations when the final whistle went in both games. It was a case of ‘job done’ as attentions quickly turned to the next challenge.

Kilcoo’s 3-10 to 0-3 Ulster club football final demolition of Derrygonnelly Harps was simply another hurdle overcome on their bid for All-Ireland glory.

For a club who were operating in the third tier of the Down leagues as recently as the mid-90s, it’s scarcely believable that the second Ulster title in their history would be greeted with such an anti-climactic feel. 

The body language of the players told its own story. They were quietly satisfied but knew their ultimate ambitions lay beyond the provincial boundaries. Croke Park was calling.

“After the match we treated it as the exact same as every game we have all year,” admits Conor Laverty. “We enjoyed it but then was about getting back home reassessing where we were and getting our heads down and getting ready for the next match.”

In years gone by, a Down SFC was the ultimate dream for Kilcoo, then Ulster became the Holy Grail. Now, it’s the Andy Merrigan Cup or bust. 

“Straight away it wasn’t a thing of celebrating that win, you were more or less thinking about the next step ahead of it,” says former Kilcoo stalwart Anthony Devlin. 

“It was a very unusual feeling. Any time before, even winning the county championship, you’d be ready to go out celebrating with the boys that night.

“But this time it felt different, as if it was only a stepping stone. They seem to be more ready for the next stage this time around.”

Likewise, after Ballygunner had five points to spare over Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final, the players seemed reluctant to get too hyped up about reaching their maiden decider at Croke Park.

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“Unless we win now it doesn’t mean too much,” Philip Mahony stated on his way into the dressing rooms. 

They handed out a Munster final hiding to Kilmallock two weeks earlier. For so long, conquering their province was the code Ballygunner couldn’t crack. They lost four finals before landing their first Munster crown in 2001 and another four before their next one arrived in 2018.

sean-harney-paddy-leavey-and-tadhg-foley-celebrate Ballygunner celebrate after the Munster final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On both occasions, the ‘Gunners fell at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. Following their latest provincial triumph, their winless last four record presented another wrong to right. 

These are golden days for both Kilcoo and Ballygunner, who have turned their county championships into their own personal fiefdoms. Since 2009, Kilcoo and Ballygunner have won 10 of the 13 available senior titles in Down and Waterford respectively.

They’ve won provincial titles and fallen to the eventual All-Ireland champions in recent years: Kilcoo lost to Corofin in the 2020 final, Ballygunner to Ballyhale Shamrocks in the 2019 semi-final.

Both were crowned county champions again in 2020 but Covid robbed them of a prized opportunity to compete for the big prize.

They are clubs with rich histories hailing from vastly different communities. Kilcoo GAC is based in a rural, farming region nestled in the Mourne Mountains. Their original golden generation won seven Down SFC titles in an 11-year span in the 1920s and 30s. 

Once a village outside Waterford city, Ballygunner are now considered a suburb on the sprawling edge of town, but one who’ve never lost their small parish unity. Their first golden era saw the club deliver the Waterford SHC three-in-a-row from 1966-68. 

The clubs are built on bands of brothers. In Kilcoo you have the four Branagans and their cousins, the three Johnstons.

“You’re playing with boys who you went to primary school and have been friends with since you were four years of age,” says Laverty. “Even boys you’re not related to feel like a brother or best friend to you. That togetherness is unbreakable.”

Ballygunner have the four Mahonys and their uncle Shane O’Sullivan plus cousin Tadhg Foley, in addition to the O’Keeffe boys.

Rather than rely on a single group of players for their success, both clubs have made their dominance sustainable through regeneration from vibrant underage structures. 

Ballygunner have won the last five minor championships in Waterford, providing the senior team with fresh talent on a yearly basis. 

From the Munster winning side of 2018, just eight players started their recent All-Ireland semi-final.

“It’s a massive turnover,” says former Ballygunner player and manager Fergal Hartley. “That’s nearly half a team.

“I think sometimes when people think we’ve won eight-in-a-row in Waterford, they might think it’s an ageing team but there’s only five players who’ve been there for all of them.

“You’ve SOK (Stephen O’Keeffe), Barry Coughlan, the two (Philip and Pauric) Mahonys and Shane O’Sullivan, then Peter Hogan has been there for seven of them. You’ve a huge injection of new talent all the time.

“Every year you’ve new players coming into the panel and strengthening it all the time. They give a new lease of life to the older guys as well. That’s working for sure and competition for places is at an all-time high.”

That process is helped by the involvement of current and former senior players in juvenile coaching.

O’Keeffe and Philip Mahony have helped train minor teams of recent vintage. 2001 Munster club winner Hartley has looked after sides at senior and underage level. Many of Hartley’s ’01 team-mates got back involved once their playing careers concluded and remain active to this day.  

daryl-branagan-niall-brannagan-eugene-branagan-tiernan-fettes-and-conor-laverty-after-the-game Kilcoo retained their Ulster title earlier this month. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Retired players in Kilcoo are actively encouraged to get involved with coaching youth teams.

Kilcoo won the Paul McGirr tournament (the elite Ulster U16 competition) for the first time in 2017 and three members of that team (Shealan Johnston, Anthony Morgan and Sean Og McCusker) saw game-time against Derrygonnelly in the recent senior Ulster decider.  

Devlin formed part of that management team alongside Laverty and former senior boss Barney McEvoy.

“The club would try get you involved,” remarks Devlin. “They wouldn’t want to see you not being part of it anymore. Whenever you quit playing football, there’s nothing like it.

“There’s not too much coaxing in it. You love being part of the club and it’s a joy to get back into it again. In the summer evenings it’s great to get up onto the field when you see a bunch of children running about with a football.

“It’s brilliant and it’s a testament to the club at the minute the work they’re doing at underage level.”

*******

Devlin was involved in Kilcoo’s breakthrough county title win of 2009, which ended a 72-year famine. Many players from that team reference the club’s Division 1 title six years earlier which filled them with the belief that a championship win was possible. 

“We were competing against Mayobridge who were just an outstanding team and we just could not get the better of them,” says Devlin. “They beat us one day by 20 points. We just could’t get anywhere near them.

“They had Mickey Linden still playing well, Benny Coulter coming through who was probably the best player in Ulster then if not in Ireland. He was exceptional.”

An 18-year-old Laverty scored a penalty in that league victory and he’s been an ever present since then. 

“I think that was the last penalty I ever scored,” he smiles. “There’s lads playing on this team now whose dads were playing that day. There were grown men crying.

“We just wanted to win one championship. Honestly now, that was the dream to win one Down senior championship. That is where we were at and we would have anything to get there. Then as you progress, you reset your ambitions and reset your goals.”

When the clubs started dominating locally, the next step was to extend that success to provincial level.

Kilcoo endured many battles with Crossmaglen in the province, losing the Ulster final in 2012 and the 2015 semi-final to the Armagh kingpins . The Down men did manage to beat them in 2013, which Devlin regarded as  ”massive psychologically” for the group.

ryan-johnston-with-michael-mcnamee Kilcoo and Crossmaglen Rangers met in the 2015 Ulster championship. Source: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

“If you can beat the likes of those boys when they’re up on that pinnacle, you can get to that next stage. They were like another Mayobridge to us.”

Laverty adds, “We had some titanic battles with Cross. That was a sign that we could compete at the top level whenever we were able to match them.”

They lost the 2016 Ulster decider to a Slaughtneil outfit that went on to reach the All-Ireland final, narrowly losing to Dr Crokes. 

“We were knocking at the door in Ulster and we just couldn’t make that breakthrough. I think that heartbreak and resilience to keep going back to the well has stood us well as a team. Because it would have been easy just to give up hope.”

Ballygunner’s Munster success 21 years ago arrived in their fifth crack at Munster since 1995. Waterford teams were often the whipping boys of the Munster club, but a “change in mindset” saw the ‘Gunners raise their expectation levels. 

“As a team we spoke about it continuously,” recalls Hartley. “Whereas we very much took the view we wanted to win the Munster club. We got to a final in ’96 and ’99, but we won other big games along the way against big clubs and changed the dial a little bit in terms of our own ambition and what we wanted to do.

“It wasn’t just about winning the county anymore, we wanted to win Munster.”

They’d lost the 2000 Waterford final to a coming Mount Sion team that featured stars like Eoin Kelly, Ken McGrath, Eoin McGrath and Tony Browne. Ballygunner were seen as an ageing team coming towards the end of their days when they broke new ground, prevailing in Waterford before landing the club’s first Munster title. 

They beat Doora-Barefield in the first round, Toomevara after a replay next and Blackrock in final.

“It was huge for the club and still is to this day,” smiles Hartley. “Great memories.”

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the-ballygunner-team The Ballygunner team that brought back the club's first Munster title in 2001. Source: INPHO

After a tough run through Munster, they fell flat in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clarinbridge. 

“We didn’t perform. On the day Clarinbridge were full value for their win, the two Kerins brothers in particular were very strong. But the reality is we hurled brilliantly against Doora-Barefield, twice against Toomevara and against Blackrock. Four games in Munster and we got to the pitch every time.

“Then we got to an All-Ireland semi-final and we’d feel we were certainly off the pitch. You’d wonder was that a mindset thing or was it a case where we were in bonus terrority and the pressure was off? In some ways that can work for you but in my experience it generally doesn’t. You play to the level of your ambition and expectation.”

Hartley was manager by the time the second Munster crown arrived in 2018. Na Piarsaigh were the itch they couldn’t scratch, losing to them in the 2015 and 2017 finals. 

“Na Piarsaigh were the big powers,” says Hartley, who managed his native club in 2014 and 2017-19. “They were just better than us in 2017, simple as that.

“The following year, they were very much feeling we had to win this one. We came up against a top Na Piarsaigh team again and we beat them. 

“You could argue that was the Holy Grail, but we were very much focused on going on and to some extent learning from our mistakes in 2001.

“Albeit that none of those players were there – I was there,” says Hartley.

“We were adamant that wasn’t going to be the case and I don’t think it was, we just came up against Ballyhale, who were in their pomp. Arguably, has there ever been a better club team?

“Beaten by a very, very good team and it was as simple as that. Ballyhale were the better team and fully deserving of their win. We couldn’t argue with that.”

They’ll renew acquaintances in the final against Ballyhale next month, but Hartley sees the 2019 meeting having little significance on that encounter. 

“Other than to use it for motivation I don’t think there’s any reason to be thinking about it. A lot has changed in three years, it’s a huge amount of time in sport.”

He feels the Munster final defeat to Borris-Ileigh in late 2019 will likewise be a driving force.

“Was there hurt? Absolutely, the guys were devastated. Did that help drive them on? Absolutely. But again there’s no question there’s a hunger there in Ballygunner, but there’s a hunger there in Ballyhale. Who’s going to go into an All-Ireland club final and not be hungry?”

conor-laverty-with-his-sons-after-the-game Conor Laverty with his sons after the 2020 All-Ireland club final loss to Corofin. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

If Kilcoo prevail against Roscommon’s Padraig Pearses this weekend, they’ll seal a first trip to Croke Park since the gut-wrenching All-Ireland final loss to Corofin in 2020. 

Coming home from the capital that evening Devlin, who retired in 2016, recalled chatting with his family about the difficulty in ever returning to that stage.

‘How difficult is it to get out of Down, never mind get through the Ulster campaign to get back to that stage? This might never happen again.’

Now they’re 120 minutes away from being crowned the best club team in Ireland. 

But if you think the Magpies squad are getting ahead of themselves, you’d be sadly mistaken.

“We have an All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday,” deadpans Laverty. “And that’s as far as thinking goes.” 

As former players, Devlin and Hartley can sum up what it would mean to Kilcoo and Ballygunner to go all the way. 

“Days like this were just dreamt of,” says Devlin. “You never believed things like this would happen to a wee place like Kilcoo. We’re living in dreamland at the minute. We’re going through a purple patch and we know these things don’t last forever. You have to make the most of it when they do.”

Hartley adds, “I don’t think anyone has ever been to a final where they think ‘we’ve achieved a goal by getting to a final’, if you get there your goal has to be to try and win it.

“But by the same token for us it’s historic, it’s our first time ever playing in an All-Ireland final and it’s been a dream in our club for many years.

“We’re down to the last two. If you think to the start of every year between all the clubs that start in all the counties and we’re down to the last two, you’ve a chance for sure.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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