The Kilcoo journey to Croke Park
By Michael Devlin
To understand how Kilcoo got here, you need to know where they came from. You need to know what Kilcoo are.
The tiny village isn't bustling with amenities. There is St Malachy’s Church, where parish priest Fr Toman will say a special mass for the squad this evening. Faith and football are the cornerstones of this community.
Across the road is a small grocery shop, with a chip van parked at the side. Nearby is the local primary school, where each of the players attended. Every house and lamp post is festooned in black and white bunting, flags and ‘good luck’ signs.
Just up the road then is the turn-off to the meandering lane that leads to Páirc Eoghain Rua. A gravel bank across a quarry of water spells out large ‘Kings of Ulster’ and ‘Up The Magpies’. The Mourne Mountains rise into the sky off in the distance to the east.
Just before the pitch’s car park, there’s an old ruinated cottage. ‘Fáilte’ is painted on the gable wall on the way in, ‘Slán Abhaile’ on the way out. Tumbled by age, the brilliant white of the murals are somewhat symbolic of how the club brings everything here to life.
Conor Laverty lives in a house just on the corner of the road to the pitch. For the team's joint-captain, club coaching officer and team talisman, to be as close as possible to the football field is fitting.
Aside from Laverty’s remarkably busy life as GAA Development Officer at Trinity College in Dublin, coaching with Monaghan seniors, training and playing with Kilcoo seniors, coaching the under-8s, and looking after a herd of sheep on the farm, he is also a father to four boys - Setanta, Connlach, Conor Og and Fiachra - all under the age of eight.
“My wife Roisín is nurse, so she does two nights a week. It just fits in well to our schedule,” says Laverty. “You don’t need a babysitter for as long whenever she is working at night. You would be up early with the boys, trying to get things done at the farm first, then getting to Trinity, getting back up the road. Doing something with the underage teams here, I try to do them on the same nights as senior training. I take the 6s and 8s from six to seven, then senior training. It means I am here early.”
Laverty says his recent role with Seamus McEnaney’s setup at Monaghan hasn’t impacted on his other responsibilities too much. ‘Banty’ has been accommodating, and the nights Laverty can attend, he brings his two eldest boys along.
The young lads are well used to being around senior training sessions. “They wouldn’t have missed three training sessions with our seniors since last January,” says Laverty. “They come every night, there are five or six wee lads here and they play away.
“Roisín’s parents would have said, ‘Who looks after the boys whenever you’re training?’, and I don’t understand what they mean. They just play about.
"We all did it whenever the seniors were training. The matches that used to go on here, they were fierce! We were being chased off the field by the managers to get away up onto the bank and play!
"It’s all part and parcel, and it’s a good environment for them to be around. Those boys are those wee lads’ heroes, so it’s great for them to be down.”
Going further into Kilcoo’s pitch, behind a modest set of changing rooms, is a large community centre that opened in November 2018. The building is complete with a multi-purpose hall, meeting room and kitchen facilities, much-need facilities for the whole community and wider rural area of the village.
There is a hive of activity and boom of workout music from a gym unit, where half-back Aaron Branagan is running a fitness boot-camp. Every morning at 6am and two evenings a week, Branagan’s classes are filled with local men and women of all ages improving their health and fitness.
Inside the hall, club members have just erected a 20ft poster to mark tomorrow’s All-Ireland Club Final appearance. It depicts each member of the Kilcoo squad and management team, and a map of Ireland with three locations marked; Kilcoo, Corofin, and Croke Park.
Everyone here is involved in this, the most exciting week in Kilcoo’s 114-year history.
For the early stages of Kilcoo’s existence, they were a standard-bearer in Down football. They first won the Senior County Championship in 1917, and again in 1922. Then came four in a row between 1925 and 1928, and more success in 1932, 1933 and 1937.
However more than a few generations of Kilcoo footballers would pass by before such heady heights were reached again.
Club vice-chairman Roger Morgan recalls how the club were “yo-yoing for years between Division Three and Two” before returning to senior football in 1998.
“We came in ‘98 to Division One, the same year we won our first Minor Championship. We were favourites to go straight back down, and we played Burren in the first game of the league in 1999 and beat them.”
That win over the then reigning Down county champions was a turning point.
“Nobody ever won in Burren at that stage,” says Morgan. “That sent out a message around the county.”
Laverty remembers being at the game as a youngster, but a few years later he was on the pitch as a fresh-faced teenager for another milestone in the club’s recent history.
Jim McCorry came in as team manager for the 2002 season, handing debuts to a 17-year-old Laverty and a number of other promising young talents. A year later in 2003, Kilcoo ended a wait of almost five decades for a senior title by securing the Division One league.
“That was massive for the club,” recalls Laverty. “That was celebrated as much as our first championship in ’09. There were men crying on the field after that. Our chairman was playing on the field with us, Terry O’Hanlon. Jerome, Ryan and Shealan’s daddy Jerome Snr was playing.
“It was great for them, because they sowed it for so long, they were the men that took us through those lower divisions. To get that wee piece of silverware in 2003 was mighty.”
McCorry left Kilcoo and came back again in 2008, who were then ready to take another leap forward and reclaim the Down Championship trophy they hadn’t touched in over 70 years.
A league final victory over a monolithic Mayobridge side led by Benny Coulter that December certainly precursored the shifting tide.
“In that wee period, we just couldn’t get over that Mayobridge team,” says Laverty. “I think they had won five Championships in a row, they were going really strong.”
“They came back after an Ulster campaign, and our league campaign in 2008 was being put back and put back, and we could never beat the ‘Bridge, but it was played in the middle of December. We had gone ten or 12 weeks without game time because we were waiting on Mayobridge.
“They had a good run in Ulster, but we waited on them, trained very hard, and beat them in that league final. That was the first time that we would have took their scalp in a meaningful match.”
The following year, Mayobridge were just off the back of an eighth county title in ten years, but on a “horrendous night” in Hilltown in the championship quarter-final Kilcoo’s David slayed the Goliath once again.
“The game probably shouldn’t have been played. The pictures were in the paper the following day of the puddles on the field,” says Laverty, who remembers Kilcoo supporters beginning to head for home as they approached the end of the game five points down.
“We just got it turned around. The referee at the end, on the 21-yard line, and to my right-hand side Choc [Aidan Branagan] was standing there. I popped it quick to him and he rifled it to the roof of the net. We just got on a roll, PD [Paul Devlin] kicked a 45’, and we pipped them.
“That was a good time. We had a tough run that year, beat Bryansford in the first round, beat Mayobridge and then Burren in the semi. Beat Loughinisland, that was their second final in two years.
“That was a magic time for the club, because we had gone through a lot of spells and been beat by Mayobridge teams by 30 points in Championship matches. That was a brilliant Mayobridge team that should have won an Ulster title, and they gave us some hidings.
“We probably thought we were never going to get over the line. I remember training very hard over winter months. One of the boys said the other night, ‘What would you have paid to win a Down championship?’.
"We’d have done anything.”
While Kilcoo seniors were beginning to find their feet in Down Division One football in the mid-2000s, the club’s youth ranks were also flourishing, and the next golden generation were beginning to come to the fore.
In 2006, the club’s Under-14s won the All-Ireland Feile, with a squad that included Jerome Johnston, Ryan Johnston, Darryl Branagan and Darragh O’Hanlon.
“My da was manager, Mickey McClean was with him,” says Jerome, now a key component of the current senior team’s forward line. “Conor [Laverty] was there, Aidan [Branagan] was there, Donal Kane was there as well throughout that campaign. At that time those boys would have been breaking onto the senior team, in around 21.”
Johnston recalls how coming up against some of the biggest clubs in the country, and rising to the challenge of performing on a national level at a young age, were crucial to his generation in pushing on through their adolescent years and paving the way for their graduation to senior football.
“A lot of the teams were similar to Ballyboden, especially the Dublin team we played. They were very big fella’s, they were huge. But it was a good competition because you were playing the best teams from all around Ireland. We played [teams from] Dublin and Cork.
“In the semi-final we beat Omagh, then the final was Celbridge. I know a couple of them went on to play professional soccer. They were big as well, and fabulous footballers as well.
“It was a good achievement, and something that you will always remember. To be the best team in Ireland at U14 at that time was nice.
“Whenever we were breaking onto the seniors, the boys were doing great work as well, they’d just won their first championship in 72 years. Kilcoo put a lot of emphasis on youth which has served us well so far.
“We were probably lucky that we were getting a lot of success as we were coming, and that’s down to the men who were putting in that work, and there’s been a number of them. They were putting that work in with us right since we were six or seven years of age right through.”
Conor Laverty was then, and still is, instrumental in the development of Kilcoo’s young players. Just like he and Johnston’s generations had been reared on the football field, so too are today’s youngsters. He believes a distinguishable Kilcoo style has now seeped through to all levels of the club’s teams.
“If you were to watch our Under-8s or 10s, they’d be at the same kind of craic as our seniors, playing good football. I can recall going to an Under-8 blitz this year, and I think we scored 11 goals, and ten were palmed goals.
“It’s just our style of play, we’ve had that for the last number of years. We’ve a template and a structure in place on how we want to go about things, from Under-6s right through to senior level.
“It’s very important. At the start of the year whenever we are sorting coaches, we are trying to get people with the right mentality and have that Kilcoo way engraved in them, in how we play football and what we expect of them.”
It doesn’t show signs of slowing down either. Last year Kilcoo achieved their third Down Minor Championship title of the decade, making it a clean sweep of championships for their club alongside senior and reserve wins.
An unprecedented year for a remarkable club. But still, with one last thing to do.
"They’re probably one of the best club teams, if not the best club team, ever.”
Conor Laverty has watched enough of Corofin over the last few years to assure him that tomorrow’s game will be one of the toughest he’ll ever play.
“We are just happy where we are. We are delighted at how we are going, delighted to be there. Corofin’s for three-in-a-row, that’s something on its own. They’re massive favourites going into the game. They play a great brand of football, and we know the task that we’re up against.
“It’s going to be an extremely difficult match, but hopefully we can go there and just perform and do ourselves proud. Do our village proud, that’s what we’ll be looking for.”
For Jerome Johnston, the All-Ireland title he won as a 14-year-old could come around full circle.
His memories of that evening in 2006, arriving into the packed-out car park opposite the village play school as an All-Ireland winner, will stay with him forever. He’s hoping for more of the same tomorrow night.
“Even for people from outside Down that were there, I suppose that was nice. It will be nice when you look back after its all finished, hopefully it’s not for a number of years yet.”