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'There were men crying, they hadn't experienced any success at senior level' - the rise of Kilcoo

Down’s Kilcoo have risen from humble beginnings to next Sunday’s All-Ireland club final.

Kilcoo's Conor Laverty
Kilcoo's Conor Laverty
Image: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

BEFORE THEY WERE planning a trip to Croke Park, plotting how to take down one of the greatest club sides in the game and dreaming of that All-Ireland prize, Kilcoo’s footballers lived through hard and barren times.

Conor Laverty has eight county senior medals in his pocket. He was central to their Ulster assaults before that breakthrough arrived on the first day of December last year. He’ll be the pivot close to goal next Sunday that makes those darting runs when his team attacks.

But he’s been knocking around since 2002 on the club senior side and those early days were far from smooth success.

“We won our first senior league in 2003 and that was celebrated equally as much as what Ulster was; there were men crying, they hadn’t experienced any success at senior level. We won our next league in 2008 but between 2003 and 2008, we suffered a lot of heartbreak.”

They watched on as Mayobridge, less than ten miles away, took a stranglehold on the club game in Down with celebrated names like Linden and Coulter propelling them to eight titles between 1999 and 2008.

“There were nights you were coming home after championship matches and thinking, ‘Are we ever going to get over the line in Down?’ We would have done anything.

“I remember us training hard over the winter months collectively and in small groups, in gyms and getting out into the forest parks. We were saying to ourselves, ‘Is this all ever going to be worth it?’ We would have done anything to win one county championship.

“We came up against a very strong Mayobridge team. They were very dominant in that spell, they were a great team.”

2009 was the pivotal campaign. Kilcoo qualified for their first senior final in 61 years and seized their chance to win a first title in 72 years. That was the springboard. They got back to the winner’s podium in 2012 and returned for the next five autumns.

Rivals Burren quenched their seven-in-a-row hopes in 2018, they responded defiantly last year and their winning run has yet to draw to a halt. In Laverty’s mind it is the seasoned campaigners who are essential to driving the current squad.

“Everybody has to be reminded too about where we’ve come from, we were in Division 3, Division 4 years ago. Hard work has gone into getting us to where we are today, we have to be very humble and thankful to the people that got us in this position.

conor-laverty-and-aidan-branagan Kilcoo's Conor Laverty and Aidan Branagan lift the Ulster trophy. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

“Myself and Aidan Branagan (are still there), Niall McEvoy is another man who would have been in that bracket. On the panel. Sean O’Hanlon and Gerdy McEvoy, they are playing close to 20 years. They are the best men that you could ever come across.

“If somebody was to ask me, ‘What would you want as a young lad to grow up and be a Gaelic footballer?’, their attitudes and their commitment is something that I would love to have. A couple of fellas who have retired recently in the past number of years. They were the driving force behind us. They were the men that really turned this team into what it is today.”

Kilcoo have 45 players on a deep squad that put their shoulder to the wheel in their efforts before facing Galway heavyweights Corofin. They have second and third-string sides with decent numbers that train on different nights. Laverty lauds the work of the playing population and all those around them like club chairman Terry O’Hanlon and groundsman Niall Morgan and plenty others from the parish.

In their small rural community, football sustains the locals.

“The whole laugh was the Aaron (Branagan) thing, he said there was football, mass and sheep in Kilcoo. You probably couldn’t describe it any better. That’s the truth.

“There’s the chapel, there’s a shop and the primary school. That’s it within the village. We’re a very rural place. The people are steeped with their culture, we’re very proud of our history. We’re very proud of our culture, we take that very seriously. But the football club is the heartbeat.

“We recently got a community centre and that was based at the club. We have two pitches, two floodlit pitches, fantastic facilities. Our primary school is just walking distance from the field and the club have great links and great relationship with the primary school. We’re very lucky that we have a principal in our school that is very involved with Gaelic Games. It ties all the club and the community in together.”

The loss to Burren in the 2018 Down decider plunged Kilcoo into darkness but they gathered themselves and pinpointed Mickey Moran as the figure who could guide them back to the light.

“We needed to make a statement that this team isn’t finished,” says Laverty.

“By getting Mickey, I thought it was a great statement by the club, of their intent and their ambition. Mickey came in and the belief that he has given us has been unbelievable.

“Just Mickey as a person, I do believe that he has made us a better club, he has made us better people and a better team. He has had a serious effect on us.

“He’s the most honest man you could ever come across. If something has to be said, he’ll say it. That honesty within the squad this year has been invaluable.”

Gaelic football is at the core of Laverty’s life. He works as GAA development officer in Trinity College in Dublin. Over the winter he was recruited to coach the Monaghan senior outfit in 2020 but Banty McEnaney has afforded him the space to plough his energies for now into Kilcoo.

Off the pitch there is the farm at home that needs work on, a release from his sporting duties.

And family with four sons to swell the numbers of the Kilcoo supporters.

“Setanta is 8. Conloch is 5, Conor Óg is 4 and Fiachra is nearly 2. The two older boys would be real interested in it at the minute. They got to come home on the bus after the Ulster final. They were delighted.

conor-laverty-celebrates-with-son-setanta Conor Laverty with his son Setanta after their Ulster club final win.

“A couple of the boys have wee lads now who don’t miss a training session and it’s great to see them down at training kicking about. It’s a good environment for them to be coming up in.

“Things wouldn’t work if I didn’t have a great family around me. There’s been some great men and women down the years that have supported Kilcoo through all the good days they’ve been there but particularly the bad days.

“As players the most meaningful thing is whenever someone is standing there on the bad days and giving you that support. I’m just delighted we can give them great club people an opportunity to come to Croke Park to wear their colours and support their team. I know that means an awful lot to them.”

They’ve travelled a long way together.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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