Johnston primed to fire Kilcoo to new high
Kilcoo's Shealan Johnston may not have exited the Minor level stage just yet but he now finds himself in line for an extra helping of silverware within the space of a month.
The talented brother of established Down duo Ryan and Jerome Johnston, the teenage Shealan was stunned when he was handed an eleventh-hour starting place against Donegal title-holders Naomh Conaill in the recent Ulster club championship final.
His five-star performance in that game fully vindicated the faith shown in him by management duo Mickey Moran and Conleith Gilligan.
Now Shealan finds himself in the running for an Ulster Club champions tournament medal with the Kilcoo minor string, while at the same time coveting a starting berth in the senior team's starting line-up that will face Dublin and Leinster champions Ballyboden St Enda's in the All-Ireland club semi-final at the start of next month.
He may have found himself on cloud nine in the immediate aftermath of Kilcoo's historic Ulster club triumph but he came quickly down to earth to help steer their minor side into the Ulster minor club semi-final against Donegal outfit Termon on Boxing Day.
If the youngest of the Johnston clan possesses an insatiable appetite for action, then Kilcoo skipper Conor Laverty - the minor team manager among his other many-sided duties - is only too happy to acknowledge his ongoing contribution to the most successful era in the club's history.
"Shealan stepped in against Naomh Conaill in the Ulster final and played superbly," says Laverty. "That was very high-profile but his commitment and work-rate have been no less in the minor club series. He is proving a great inspiration and obviously I would love to see this young side come good but we are not looking beyond the challenge of facing Termon."
Anthony Morgan and Justin Clarke are other young guns who have acquired experience at senior level with Kilcoo and now have their sights on taking the club on another magic ride.
But the manner in which Termon brushed aside the challenge of Emyvale at the quarter-final stage has served to remind Kilcoo that winning the minor club tournament will present its own difficulties.
Senior team assistant manager Conleith Gilligan believes that the battery of youthful players who earned their senior spurs played a big part in helping to put Kilcoo right at the top of the Ulster club tree.
"These young boys are a great credit to the club and I think they will help to keep Kilcoo's name up in lights," says Gilligan.
"You never can take anything for granted but when you have faith in players and know that they can respond to a big test it certainly helps."
As the countdown to the All-Ireland club senior semi-final continues, Kilcoo are leaving nothing to chance in their preparations.
Already the achievement of Ballyboden St Enda's in winning their Dublin and Leinster titles has been fully digested and the fact that players of the calibre of Michael Darragh Macauley, Robbie McDaid and the Basquel brothers, Colm and Ryan, are in their ranks convince Kilcoo that they will have a difficult mission.
"We know that in beating Eire Og in the Leinster club final, Ballyboden showed a lot of grit and tenacity in difficult conditions so we know what we have to do if we are to have a chance of getting into the final," says Gilligan.
"When you get to this stage you know that the heat is on and you have to respond to the challenge."