No club has ever won the clean sweep of provincial senior football, camogie, and hurling titles in the one season, but the Derry champions held their nerve and were never behind against Kilcoo in a high-quality Ulster football final.
Four unanswered points in as many minutes just before the break gave them a 0-9 to 0-5 interval lead and while Kilcoo owned the third quarter, they couldn’t get the equalising score which could have made things very interesting.
Asked whether the weight of history had been a burden or a source of inspiration for Slaughtneil, dual player Karl McKaigue took about a second to make up his mind.
“It was pressure, no doubt about it,” he admitted. “The camogie team won theirs and the hurlers had theirs in the bank and we still had three football games to go. Everywhere you went, all you heard was people talking about the treble and saying ‘these footballers are under some pressure now’. Fair play to us, we took it game by game to cap off a magnificent 2016 for our club.”
Slaughtneil won a first Ulster club SFC in 2014 before losing the All-Ireland final to Corofin.
They could create even more history — along with a scheduling nightmare for Croke Park — should they advance to both the All-Ireland club hurling and football finals on St Patrick’s Day.
“That is a long way off!” grinned McKaigue. “We have an All-Ireland quarter-final in a fortnight’s time in London and if we get over that, we’ll think about it then. Now is the time to celebrate. We’ve had a long, long 2016. A lot of boys haven’t even had a drink since the start of the championship so we will enjoy tonight.”
Kilcoo were chasing an elusive first Ulster SFC crown, but strong finishes to both halves got Slaughtneil over the line. They settled quickest and raced into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead with Shane McGuigan scoring the first from play in the eighth minute.
Influential Ryan Johnston eased Kilcoo into the game and caused Slaughtneil problems when he moved into full-forward, having a hand in all their points as they drew level at three points each.
The sides were level on two more occasions in the first half, but Slaughtneil took over in a crucial three-minute spell before the break, scoring four unanswered points.
Brendan Rogers drove Slaughtneil forward from defence, making some inspirational runs and nailing two points. Chrissy McKaigue also came up from the back to fist over and a rare poor kickout by the excellent Kilcoo keeper Niall Kane gifted Cormac O’Doherty a score, giving the treble-chasers a 0-9 to 0-5 half-time lead.
Kilcoo rallied brilliantly in the third quarter with three points on the bounce from Ceilum Doherty, Darragh O’Hanlon, and Martin Devlin.
Slaughtneil were turned over frequently in that spell with Kilcoo stripping them of possession once they carried the ball into traffic.
The five-in-a-row Down champions weren’t clinical enough in front of goal, however. Conor Laverty drove wide and with the goal beckoning, Doherty blazed the ball over the bar. Kilcoo twice got to within a point, trailing 0-9 to 0-8 and 0-10 to 0-9, but they couldn’t find the equalising score.
After a wobbly spell in the third quarter, Slaughtneil regained their composure and patiently kept possession, probing for an opening and Shane McGuigan was their chief scorer with 0-5, three from play. Slaughtneil hadn’t conceded a goal throughout the championship, but Kilcoo came close to ending that run late on when they were two points behind.
Anton McMullan made a superb low save to his left from Eugene Branagan’s low shot and pushed it away to safety after 57 minutes.
Shane McGuigan 0-5 (2f), P Bradley 0-2 (2f), B Rodgers 0-2, C McKaigue, C Bradley, C O’Doherty 0-1 each.
C Doherty 0-3, D O’Hanlon 0-2 (2f), D Branagan, R Johnston, M Devlin 0-1 each, P Devlin 0-1 (f).
A McMullan; F McEldowney, B Rodgers, K McKaigue; P McNeill, C McKaigue, K Feeney; Patsy Bradley, P Cassidy; Shane McGuigan, Paul Bradley, M McGrath; C Bradley, Se McGuigan, C O’Doherty.
R Bradley for McGrath (40), G Bradley for Se McGuigan (46), B Cassidy for O’Doherty (57).
N Kane; E Branagan, D O’Hanlon, N Branagan; D Branagan, Aidan Branagan, Aaron Branagan; J McClean, JJ McLoughlin; C Dogerty, A Morgan, R Johnston; M Devlin, P Devlin, C Laverty.
F McGreevy for McClean (BC, 40), D Kane for McLoughlin (46), D Ward for P Devlin (49), D McEvoy for M Devlin (57), N McEvoy for Aidan Branagan (60).
Sean Hurson (Tyrone).