Kilcoo have staying power to land title: Branagan
Kilcoo defender Aaron Branagan found himself cast in the role of hero last weekend when his stunning second-half goal proved crucial in tipping the scales in his team's favour against Derrygonnelly Harps in the Ulster Club Championship semi-final.
But while Branagan was deservedly showered with plaudits at the finish, he is now particularly anxious to underline what he sees as Kilcoo's "real strength" in the build-up to the Ulster Club final against Donegal champions Naomh Conaill at Healy Park, Omagh on Sunday week (2pm).
"I know much is made of what is viewed as our defensive strength, but I think one of our key attributes is our ability to close out games," insisted Branagan.
"Mickey Moran has instilled into us that we should not panic but just take one step at a time. We have trained harder than ever this year in order to get an advantage over opponents.
"We now feel we have it in the legs to succeed. Any time we do the hard runs, Mickey is there driving us on and telling us that the advantages of this will show when it comes to the last 10 minutes of games."
Moran's assessment has already borne fruit with his team having withstood a late surge from O'Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt at the quarter-final stage before keeping Derrygonnelly at bay in a frenetic finish last Sunday when a late Ryan Johnston point helped to settle frayed Kilcoo nerves.
"We just keep going and try and retain possession. But we now know that it is going to be very difficult against Naomh Conaill in the final. They showed in beating Clontibret in the semi-final last weekend that they are a good side, with key players in pivotal positions, and we will certainly need to be at our best if we are to come out on top," stated Branagan.
Kilcoo kept Derrygonnelly scoreless from the third minute to the 33rd minute and Branagan accepts that it will take a similar helping of stoic defensive resolve if Naomh Conaill are to be thwarted.
"We are known for being strong defensively as we don't give away too many goals in particular, but when you get to this stage of the Ulster Championship you know that you are going to encounter real quality.
"We have come up against teams like Crossmaglen Rangers and Slaughtneil in finals and they got the better of us, but this time round we are focused on going all the way," he pointed out.
Kilcoo's progress has, not surprisingly, been fully digested by Naomh Conaill, who are in the throes of what is an intensive build-up to the provincial final.
Their club chairman is true blue inner-city Dubliner David Kealch, who certainly wears his heart on his sleeve.
"I took great pleasure from seeing the Dubs win five in a row, but equally I am just thrilled that Naomh Conaill are in this Ulster final," said Kealch in a brogue you could cut with a knife.
"I have been living in Donegal for the past 12 years and we eat, sleep and drink football here in Glenties.
"For us to be following in the footsteps of Gaoth Dobhair by winning the Donegal title and getting into the Ulster final is a dream come true.
"But we don't want our dreams to stop there. We have come through some very challenging situations to get to where we are now and we want to finish our provincial journey in style."
Meanwhile, the Ulster Under-20 Football Championship will swing into action much earlier next year.
Derry and Fermanagh will set the ball rolling in early February in a preliminary round tie, with the final pencilled in for a month later.
In the quarter-finals, title holders Tyrone will take on neighbours Armagh.
The Red Hands, who were beaten by Cork in this year's All-Ireland semi-final, have already been installed as favourites to retain their provincial title, although the emergence of under-age rafts of talent in Derry and Donegal in particular could see the holders come under pressure.
Down are particularly keen to make an impact at Under-20 level but will hardly welcome a trip to Cavan for a quarter-final from which the winners will meet either Armagh or Tyrone.
Liam Kerr, Seamus Loughran and Ross Carr were among the players who bolstered the Down side this year but the panel is now likely to be altered.
Donegal senior manager Declan Bonner is now seeing the fruits of hard work done at Under-20 level by the manner in which players have come through, but the north west county face a difficult hurdle against Monaghan.
And Antrim know that there will be a stiff task awaiting them against the winners of the Derry v Fermanagh preliminary round tie.
Ulster Under-20 C'ship, Preliminary round: Sat, Feb 8: Derry v Antrim
Quarter-finals: Sat, Feb 15: Cavan v Down, Donegal v Monaghan, Armagh v Tyrone, Antrim v Derry or Fermanagh
Semi-finals: Fri 28/Sat 29 Feb: Cavan or Down v Donegal or Monaghan, Armagh or Tyrone v Antrim/Derry/Fermanagh.