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Bitter Ulster foes fired up for fierce battle

Former Kilcoo boss Jim McCorry reflects on intense rivalry with Cross

By Declan Bogue

On Sunday, Jim McCorry can just melt into the crowd. No longer the Down manager. No longer Kilcoo manager. Just another ordinary Jim, going along to see the ball game.

Only, this isn't a ball game like all the others. Kilcoo and Crossmaglen's meetings are dogged by the shadow of 2012, when they met for the first time in competitive action, in the Ulster club final.

A racist remark was alleged to have been passed in the direction of Crossmaglen's Aaron Cunningham.

He told reporters after: "During the game I got a bit of racial abuse from Kilcoo… You go out to play football in a good, sporting manner and hard-hitting and that. When race or whatever comes into it, I think it's disgusting."

In time, the Ulster Council would issue suspensions and punishment to players and spectators in the crowd that day, but undoubtedly it left McCorry in a terrible situation when quizzed about it afterwards by reporters.

The following year, Kilcoo would beat Cross after a replay that went to extra-time.

Despite meeting only three times, it's enough to consider this as one of the deepest rivalries in Gaelic football in Ulster.

Enough to attract 9,670 paying customers to the last instalment, with a similar crowd expected in Newry this Sunday.

How McCorry (pictured) brought Kilcoo from obscurity in Down to being one of the premier clubs in the province, though longing for a provincial title of their own, deserves deeper study. However, it propelled him to the Down role around this time last year.

He won promotion back to Division One despite fashioning a newish team, before quitting after the county executive recommended that club delegates should vote him out of his post.

Having taken early retirement, he has no end of activities to keep him busy.

Himself and wife Roisín visited their daughter Tara in Sydney, close to Coogee Bay for a month. He follows the NBA by series-linking the coverage on BT Sport. The Furry Glen and the Big Stone are visited on his walks up Kilbroney Park.

Clubs have been knocking his door during the usual merry-go-round at this time of year and although he is tempted, he really wants to take a year completely out of football. At this remove, he is perfectly poised to offer his reflections on the stormy relationship between his former club, and Crossmaglen, in particular the impossible situation he was placed in.

"It became very public," he recalls. "It really reflected away from a lot of important things that were happening within the club. It wasn't something that was dwelt upon. It was dealt with. I would say in fairness to the club, the Chairman and the committee, they were very, very good at dealing with the matters. They got it all resolved before the following year."

Before McCorry arrived at Kilcoo, they were footballing aristocracy with nine county titles in Down, but the manor roof was leaking. They hadn't a county since 1937.

The barren spell ended with victory over Loughinisland in 2009. While Burren snapped up a brace of titles after, Kilcoo have ruled their own backyard for the last four years. After this year's win convincing win over Castlewellan in the final, captain Conor Laverty described a depth of anti-Kilcoo feeling within the county.

"There was an element that felt Kilcoo wouldn't succeed," explains McCorry in the light of his departure.

"There were comments made after they lost to Burren in the first match, that they hadn't the same hunger, the same desire. I think Conor is referring to that element within the county that said they are done and that the Anthony Devlins, the Gary McEvoys and the older bracket of players were finished."

The rawest motivation in Gaelic games is the siege mentality. Even a club like Crossmaglen, with all the paeans that have been written to their greatness, still rouse emotion out of the idea that the world is against them.

It's something McCorry was happy to trade off, but having stepped away from Kilcoo, he has noticed how real it actually is. Perhaps Cross and Kilcoo are not that different. As a community, Crossmaglen had to deal with a political isolation that pulled them all in tight together.

In the case of Kilcoo, their isolation is a geographical one, nestled deep, deep in The Mournes, their clubhouse lights shining like an Auroro Borealis through the winter as they prepare for Sundays like this one. All around them, they have clubs with illustrious histories, chuckling up their sleeve before Kilcoo rose up and became the team to beat. Liatroim Fontenoys, Castlewellan, Bryansford, Clonduff all form a ring around the boys from up the mountain.

McCorry explains: "There would certainly have had some derogatory things said about Kilcoo players in the past, going into the style of football…

"People don't realise that the more you kick a wounded animal, the more it is going to bite back at you."

Paul McIver is the manager now and although he spent seven seasons with 'The Magpies', McCorry still finds himself doing a double-take when considering their progress.

Especially on weeks like this. "Two great Gladiators like Kilcoo and Cross… I mean years ago it would have felt strange to see them in the same sentence together," he added. "But when you get them in that Coliseum with everyone going along on Sunday…" Ulster club football is right up there with the highest level, he states.

"I remember those two games in 2013, would equal any experience I ever had on the line with county teams," he adds.

"The atmosphere, the big crowd, the tightness of the match, the whole preparation, the build-up to it - it's on a par with any sport of county game. The fact that some many came back to see the next game was testament to the quality. Some would say it was one of the best, or maybe even the best Ulster club game that people had seen."

What a time to be alive.

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