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How Kilcoo ended their long wait to lift first ever Ulster title

Kilcoo 2-11 Naomh Conaill 2-9

Worth the wait: Kilcoo’s joint captains Conor Laverty and Aidan Branagan lift the Seamus McFerran Cup
Worth the wait: Kilcoo’s joint captains Conor Laverty and Aidan Branagan lift the Seamus McFerran Cup
Dylan Ward celebrates after the match
Painful day: A dejected Leo McLoone of Naomh Conaill
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

The GAA is not only about identity of course, but the first Ulster Club title for the hardest of hardcore GAA clubs in Kilcoo Eoghan Rua will forever sustain this minuscule community of shepherds in a hollow of the Mourne mountains.

For a club that hadn't won a county title in 72 years when they captured a Down Championship in 2009, they have been around this scene with seven of the last eight domestic championships.

They strived for years to parlay that into a provincial win, through managers Jim McCorry and later Paul McIver.

After their crown slipped last year with defeat to Burren, they went big-game fishing. They reeled in Mickey Moran, the man who transformed Slaughtneil and at the first time of asking, he delivered Kilcoo's first and his fourth Ulster club in five years.

Only two points separated them in the end, but they played the smarter and better football, crowned by a few individual performances but none as staggeringly clever as their box of tricks joint-captain, Conor Laverty.

It must also be written into history the role of the man he shares stewardship of the team with. After their midfield flounderings against Fermanagh's Derrygonnelly Harps in the semi-final, they took remedial surgery.

They moved the big frame of Aidan Branagan - one of five brothers on this team - from full-back to midfield and he snuffed out no less than Donegal star Ciaran Thompson.

With that business sorted out, it became a game about counter-attacking. And when it came to it, Darryl Branagan pouring forward and notching 1-2 from half-back, the playmaking of Paul Devlin, the darting runs of Eugene Branagan and Ryan Johnston and the ability to provide moving targets by the inside men of Laverty and Jerome Johnston was just too much for Martin Regan's Naomh Conaill.

Still, it felt like they had to go and win that game a number of times.

With a minute to go from half-time, Kilcoo actually looked to have it sewn up and any jeweller nearby might have made a start on etching their name on the Seamus McFerran Cup.

Three goals in three minutes followed, shared between the teams with Glenties taking two.

The Kilcoo goal began that crazy period. Daryl Branagan poked a ball forward to Laverty before taking the return pass. It was then switched into the hands of Paul Devlin who squared to the incoming Aidan Branagan to palm home. That was followed in the next breadth by an Ethan O'Donnell high ball in. Kieran Gallagher kept it in play and it fell to Charles McGuinness who stepped over Kilcoo goalkeeper Martin McCourt to tap home.

Just over a minute later Naomh Conaill compiled a neat move along the endline and Ciaran Thompson crossed in and while Gallagher tried a backheel, it popped up to McKelvey to roof a shot to the net, leaving the half-time score with just a point in it to the Down men, 1-8 to 2-4.

At that point, you might imagine some choice words being deployed in the Healy Park dressing rooms. Not so.

Mickey Moran is not a man given to rants and according to selector Conleith Gilligan, all was serene before they went back out.

"For 26 minutes we were brilliant and then conceded two bad goals," the former Derry player reasoned.

"That's not unusual, we've done that before. Half time was actually really calm, it was the calmest I've seen Mickey in a long time because he knew the performance was very good and if we could do a bit more of that in the second half we knew we had the beating of them in the full-forward line."

So having built up a lead and frittered it away, Kilcoo set about stretching it out again. Ryan McEvoy nailed a pressure free. Laverty got a ball down the wing from the creative Devlin and sent marker Kevin McGettigan sprawling on the turf trying to read his jinks, before curling over a pretty point.

And then another goal. Once again, Daryl Branagan was at the source of it and when they looked to be penned in along the endline, they opened up space for Branagan to carry. He remained calm and took a bounce that left Naomh Conaill goalkeeper Stephen McGrath committed and on the floor when he laced home past two defenders on the line.

Seven points in it, 20 minutes to go. Naomh Conaill had peppered Kilcoo's full-back line with high ball all day but suddenly it lost all effectiveness.

The side that beat Clontibret in the semi-final with a clever running game tried to impose themselves just as they had done in Donegal.

They changed tack. Brendan McDyer hit one from distance. Thompson clipped over two frees and Ethan O'Donnell and Anthony Thompson registered from out the field.

They just ran out of time.

The final score finished with another spectacular effort from Daryl Branagan.

The impossible was made possible.

KILCOO: M McCourt; N Branagan, Aidan Branagan (1-0), N McEvoy; S Johnston, Aaron Branagan, D Branagan (1-2); Aaron Morgan, D Ward; E Branagan (0-2), P Devlin (0-2, 1f), R Johnston (0-2); R McEvoy (0-2, 1f), J Johnston (0-1), C Laverty (0-1)

Subs: J Clarke for E Branagan (57m), F McGreevy for R McEvoy (64m - Black card)

NAOMH CONAILL: S McGrath; U Doherty, AJ Gallagher, K McGettigan; E O'Donnell (0-2), A Thompson (0-1), E Waide; C Thompson (0-2f), L McLoone; B McDyer (0-1), E McGettigan, E Doherty (0-1); J McKelvey (1-0), C McGuinness (1-1), K Gallagher

Subs: M Boyle for AJ Gallagher (HT), D Mollloy for K Gallagher (51m), N Byrne for C McGuinness (57m), K Gallagher for E Doherty (61m), No replacement for A Thompson Black card (67m)

Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone)

Attendance: 4,785

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