Kilcoo in record six appeal as Jerome aims to build on his success with Down
When Down's Jerome Johnston fired over a point from an outlandish angle against Cork in the Allianz Football League in early April, he little dreamt that he was triggering an unexpected renaissance in his team's fortunes.
Johnston's last-gasp score not only earned Down a draw that secured their position in Division Two of the league and instead saw Derry make the drop to Division Three but it revitalised a county which had up until this year slumbered in the shadows.
Subsequent unexpected wins in the Ulster Championship against Armagh and Monaghan suddenly thrust the Mournemen into a provincial decider against Tyrone which they lost before Monaghan avenged their provincial setback against them in the All-Ireland series.
Yet the reawakened spirit and infusion of optimism that prevailed in Down carried over into the county championship and now Johnston is primed to step into a centre stage role once again when he lines out for Kilcoo against Burren in tomorrow's decider at Pairc Esler, Newry (3.00).
The fact that Kilcoo are in hot pursuit of what would be their sixth title on the trot might lead to the conclusion that the final represents nothing more than another boring day at the office for them but nothing could be further from the truth.
Indeed, Kilcoo are more on edge about tomorrow's game than they might have been in recent deciders simply because in the course of their championship surge to date they have been posed sharp questions by opponents keen to strip them of their title.
Tomorrow they will meet a Burren side that will carry an enviable tradition into the final but which has not offered a viable challenge in terms of winning the title in recent years.
Nonetheless, Johnston and his colleagues have their guard up, their desire to maintain their dominance crystal clear.
Manager Paul McIver, who was initially a candidate for the Derry job which his father Brian held at one stage, has overseen a side whose commitment, dedication and pride in the jersey are now bywords in Ulster GAA circles.
Johnston's silken skills are mirrored by those of his brother Ryan while Paul Devlin and Conor Laverty bring their own deft touches to a smooth-functioning attack.
Indeed, in Devlin and Laverty, Kilcoo possess two players whose work-rate, creativity and finishing skills can help dictate the course of the game. Both have gained experience with Down and bring authority and composure into Kilcoo's game plan.
"We know it will be tough going but we relish the chance of contesting this final," states Devlin who opted out of the Down squad earlier in the year.
At the back, the Branagan clan - Eugene, Aaron, Aidan and Daryl - offer the kind of fierce resistance that can render the liveliest of attacks impotent while Daragh O'Hanlon, arguably Down's most consistent player this year, is the perfect link man between defence and attack.
He is also one of the most proficient and consistent free-takers in the province.
Yet while Kilcoo are well-armed for battle, Burren, under the twin baton of Paddy O'Rourke and Steven McDonnell, will certainly not be coming to the table cap in hand.
Declan Rooney and Mark McKay form a solid, combative midfield pairing, Kevin McKernan's vast experience can be deployed in every area of the park, the McGovern duo Gerard and Conaill form the spine of the defence and up front Donal O'Hare's exquisite scoring touch has been getting the team across the line in most of their games.
Kevin McKernan won a Sigerson Cup medal with St Mary's University College earlier this year before imposing himself forcibly as a playmaker within the Down side and now there is nothing he would relish more than to pocket a county championship medal.
"Kilcoo are the reigning champions and they have acquired a winning habit so they will be very hard to beat but we will be up for the challenge. We are a proud club and we want to show that we are capable of mounting a challenge for the title," says McKernan.
It was McKernan's father Brendan who was among the battery of players that initially helped to put Burren on the championship map.
He won All-Ireland honours with Down in the early 90's having successfully cut his teeth at club level and Paddy Murray, one of the Burren backroom team, feels that the current side faces a stiff challenge in striving to gain the levels achieved by their predecessors.
"We have people in Burren who have Ulster and All-Ireland club medals jangling in their pockets and if that is not an incentive to the present squad of players then I don't what is," states Murray.
"There is no doubt that while we have shown good form to get to this final we will be up against a Kilcoo side that have won five titles on the trot and when you have been so consistent then you get more confident and composed.
"We will need to be at the top of our game to come out on the right side but I still believe we are capable of doing that.
"The important thing is that we have belief in our own ability but we also recognise just how good Kilcoo are.
"Not too many clubs in Down can boast their level of consistency nor can they match their spirit and hunger to remain where they are.
"It will be up to us to match them in every respect and that's a big challenge."
However, Kilcoo's recent track record, their palpable hunger for more success and their yearning to move onto an even higher plateau could see them make it the round half-dozen in terms of domestic prizes.