Slaughtneil triumph in fiesty battle of wills with Kilcoo
With the help of selector Willie Hampson, Slaughtneil made it out the right side of a scrap against Kilcoo in this Ulster Championship preliminary round game, with incident enough to keep us going for the whole Championship.
After the Down county final, Kilcoo manager Paul McIver suggested they didn't get fair play in their last meeting against these opponents. "We feel, having analysed the Ulster final, there were a number of decisions that baffled us, we would love to show you them, if you ever wanted to see how some of the decisions were come to," he said.
The fire was gently stoked during the week by Kilcoo selector Paddy Murray, who claimed Slaughtneil were adept at winning frees, something that greatly irked Slaughtneil manager John Joe Kearney, especially after he learned that Kilcoo had 27 frees to their 12 over the 70 minutes of football.
"I was watching up the line, the amount of barracking that the linesman was getting from the Kilcoo officials along the line was serious. They never left him," was Kearney's view after.
It led to a simmering opening with Dylan Ward being dismissed on nine minutes for striking Karl McKaigue.
As soon as that happened, Kilcoo retreated into an ultra-defensive formation and were intent on raiding Slaughtneil on the counter-attack, Paul Devlin contributing two fine points from long range in the opening quarter through such an approach.
Slaughtneil were patient but finding a way through required a lot of patience.
Kilcoo coughed up a few frees that were punished by Christopher Bradley and Shane McGuigan and Slaughtneil got lucky when efforts from play by Brendan Rogers and Padraig Cassidy were waved over when the view from the press box suggested they had curled wide.
The temperature in the stands was fairly lively anyway, but when a coming together of Kilcoo's Ceilum Doherty and his opponent Paul McNeill resulted in an inexplicable red card for McNeill, it led to exchanges flung and on the line, Slaughtneil manager Mickey Moran was doing the universal sign-language for 'diving' while Kilcoo selector Sean Michael Johnston let him know what was on his mind with no sugar-coating.
At half-time with Slaughtneil 0-7 to 0-4 up, Kilcoo formed not one, but two huddles on either side of the pitch before going in. After a prolonged break, Kilcoo subs stationed themselves outside the dressing rooms to form a guard of honour for their own players.
Bizarrely, they remained there for Slaughtneil to walk out past. Slaughtneil players afterwards revealed that nothing was said at that point, but they were slightly amused by what they felt was a poor attempt at intimidation.
The game's only goal came on 38 minutes. Slaughtneil had to be patient on the attack and exchanged the ball around the fringes of Kilcoo's defence but when Brendan Rogers gambled on a shot, it fell short only for Patsy Bradley having ghosted into the edge of the square to beat Stephen Kane's leap and flick it to the net.
Six of Kilcoo's eight second half points came from placed ball with Darragh O'Hanlon and Paul Devlin unerring in their accuracy but with 10 minutes remaining and the Down champions having pulled the gap back to three points, two points in a minute - the first arriving from a monster kick-pass from Chrissy McKaigue to Sé McGuigan that he converted after a shimmy or two followed by a cheap pointed free after conceding their own kick out, should have been the final punch to the guts that finished Kilcoo.
Instead, they hit back. Conor Laverty picked his way past Rogers and burned into the box where a Padraig Cassidy foul led to referee Niall Cullen flinging his arms wide for a penalty.
O'Hanlon had missed a penalty against RGU Downpatrick in the county semi-final and after taking a long time to compose himself, blasted it to Antoin McMullan's right, but the Slaughtneil goalkeeper got a strong hand to push it around the post for a '45'.
McMullan revealed afterwards that Slaughtneil selector Willie Hampson had been following the Kilcoo warm up and O'Hanlon practising penalties. The message was relayed to the 'keeper. Hampson's powers of observation saved Slaughtneil.
Devlin converted the '45 to leave four points in it.
Slaughtneil were intent on killing time by holding possession, but a couple of slip ups caught them. Christopher Bradley touched the ball on the ground and after he wouldn't release the ball, it was moved up for O'Hanlon to float over.
Another delivery - this time by Donal Kane - just missed the fist from Laverty in front of goals and JJ McLaughlin had an attempt for goals that Rogers punched over almost out of pure instinct.
Still, the game finished in the most dramatic circumstances. Kilcoo won a free from 20 yards. O'Hanlon wound that big boot up and let fly. Patsy Bradley was rumoured (nobody could say with any scientific certainty unless they witnessed the grazed knuckles of Bradley) to have got a fist to it as it thumped the crossbar and spun out to safety, sound-tracked by the long peeps of Cullen's whistle.