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Kilcoo must be on alert in their hunt to rule Ulster for the first time, says Kearney

 

Wise words: John Joe Kearney
Wise words: John Joe Kearney
Harps’ Brendan Rasdale and Ryan Jones
Mickey Moran
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Whatever transpires over the next fortnight and a bit, there will be a new name etched on the Seamus McFerran Cup.

The bookies favour Kilcoo to finally land an Ulster crown that has been on their radar for the last decade.

After winning their county title in 2009 for the first time since 1937, they have lifted it seven times since. That's a lot of entries into Ulster with only two final defeats against Crossmaglen Rangers (2012) and Slaughtneil (2016) to point to.

Of all the teams left, their quest is the most intriguing. There has been a bit of evolution in their panel, but essentially the same figures form the nucleus; the Kanes between the sticks, the Clann Branagan, Jerome and Ryan Johnston, Paul Devlin and the wizard-like Conor Laverty.

After beginning their domestic dominance under Jim McCorry, Paul McIver maintained it. When he departed, the men located deep in the Mournes went after some of the most seasoned Ulster Club men of the recent past.

In came Mickey Moran, who brought the title back to Slaughtneil in 2014, 2016 and 2017. He brought Conleith Gilligan, who won the title in 2001 and 2013 and also lost two finals to Crossmaglen in between, along with him from Derry.

Kilcoo looked shaky in the early rounds of the Championship but as their run has gone on, they have become more assured. The Ulster Club is like a 10k sprint at the end of a marathon and few know what makes Moran tick in this competition more than John Joe Kearney, his assistant manager at Slaughtneil.

"I am not missing any of it. It was very time consuming, particularly when you were successful because we were running right all the way through the year for three or four years," he recalled.

Kilcoo meet Derrygonnelly in the first ever clash between the clubs in the Athletic Grounds tomorrow. The bookies have Derrygonnelly as outsiders for the competition.

Moran, for one, will be cautious. Slaughtneil met them for two successive years and while they won on both occasions, there was a sense that the Fermanagh men were learning fast on the job.

"We played Derrygonnelly twice," recalled Kearney.

"In the first game they came out and played us man for man and we wrecked them. But the next year, they set up differently, very defensively, and they made it very difficult for us.

"To be honest, if they keep winning it all in Fermanagh, they are obviously getting better. I think it will be a very tight game between them and Kilcoo."

Just like their record at inter-county level, no club from Fermanagh have ever won the senior Ulster Club title. With this being Derrygonnelly's fifth successive tilt at it, they are a seasoned outfit.

There is a link between the two clubs. Harps assistant manager Brendan Rasdale is a teacher in St Michael's College in Enniskillen, and Kilcoo's Conor Laverty was in the MacRory Cup backroom team of the side that went on to win a first ever Hogan Cup for the school in the spring.

Rasdale's knowledge also went a long way to matching Trillick stride for stride in the quarter-final. They snatched a draw after extra-time to force penalties, which they won.

A "signature win" is what former county footballer Colm Bradley hailed that as in his weekly newspaper column in the Impartial Reporter, and it is that kind of victory that elevates a team's self-image.

On the other side of the draw, both Clontibret and Naomh Conaill will see no earthly reason why they cannot snatch it.

After their three-game marathon against Gaoth Dobhair in the Donegal county final, Naomh Conaill had just three full days to dust themselves down before they faced Cavan kingpins Castlerahan. They spent one of them in the pub.

Steel sharpens steel and while they tired in that game, they actually finished the closing stages strongly.

Their manager Martin Regan said: "You can say we are in bonus territory, but we never thought of Ulster once, not until we got over Gaoth Dobhair.

"But when you are there, it's like every competition, you want to win it and give as good an account of yourselves as you can.

"We have two good weeks behind us now. We need to get the bodies right and look at Clontibret. We would be disappointed if we didn't get over the line on Saturday night and get into an Ulster final."

As for Clontibret, they are the side with the most to lose. They will be desperate to join Scotstown and Castleblayney Faughs as Monaghan representatives on the roll of honour.

If they cannot get past the Naomh Conaill hurdle, could Dessie Mone and Vinny Corey get back to this stage with such a glorious opportunity ahead?

It's anyone's Cup to win this year. It's a desperate cliché, but maybe it really is all about who wants it most this time.

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