Kilcoo continue to make a mockery of favourites’ tags and bookies’ odds, a superb dismantling of the Dublin and Leinster champions Ballyboden on Saturday earning the first-time Ulster winners a place in the All-Ireland final on January 19.
It was so deserved too. Ballyboden will rue their wastefulness but apart from a familiar fightback from them in the closing minutes, they never showed the hunger or willingness to do whatever it took to get to Croke Park.
And after facing down the driving wind and rain at Kingpsan Breffni Park, along with everything Ballyboden had to offer, Kilcoo’s lion-hearted talisman Conor Laverty spoke with conviction about stopping Corofin’s bid for a third AIB All-Ireland club SFC title in a row.
“We concentrate on ourselves, not the opposition, because we know if we perform to our capabilities we are a game for anyone,” warned Laverty.
“The underdogs’ tag is something we are used to. We will get back to hard work tomorrow and we will be ready in two weeks’ time.
“Corofin are a fantastic team but we hope to go there and do ourselves and do the village proud.”
After some unconvincing displays, the Down champions were not fancied to win a first Ulster title before Christmas, yet they beat Naomh Conaill in style, and this was another high-quality performance.
This new condensed AIB All-Ireland club series may just suit them perfectly because they have hit peak form in the last two games and hope to carry it into the final.
Mickey Moran won three Ulster titles in four years with Slaughtneil but the All-Ireland eluded him. His Derry team suffered a 10-point defeat by Corofin in the 2015 All-Ireland final, but Kilcoo are on their own journey.
Roars of ‘UTM, UTM’ (Up The Magpies) rang around Breffni from Kilcoo’s fervent faithful, who easily outnumbered Dublin travellers in a crowd of 4,746.
“Everyone in the village comes out and supports us in the good days and the bad days so they deserve their day in Croke Park as much as the players,” said Laverty.
“A picture tells a thousand words and you can by the smiles on all our faces what this means to us.
“That was a battle out there, especially in the second half facing into that wind. We were prepared for it.
“We’ve had great heart over the years but Mickey is a special man and he has added something different.
“The players deserve credit too. We are in the shape of our lives and have never been as confident going into games.”
After being level three times in the opening quarter in the howling wind and rain at Kingpsan Breffni Park, Ryan Johnston’s superb 21st-minute goal helped Kilcoo lead 1-5 to 0-6 at the break.
Ballyboden were still in the game, but were undone by a fortunate second Kilcoo goal. Dylan Ward’s attempt at a point came off the post and Daryl Branagan buried the rebound to stretch the lead out to five points.
The Dublin champions had fought back more than once in this campaign and they fought back in the closing a couple of times — but a lack of patience, composure, and poor shooting cost them, Colm and Ryan Basquel and ‘keeper Darragh Gogan chief among the guilty parties.
Michael Darragh Macauley’s day of frustration was ended by a black card.
“The difference was our scoring efficiency,” admitted Ballyboden boss Anthony Rainbow.
“It’s normally around 70-75% but today it was around 40%.
“When you have 23 shots and only score 11, it’s not good enough to win a tight game like this.
“We had the chances. A few frees and 45s we missed in the second half we would normally put over, and a lot of things went against us.
“You have to give Kilcoo credit too. They are a good side and will take a lot of beating, but we had talked about how their game was built on turnovers and we were a bit unfortunate with the second goal because if the point had gone over, there would have been no goal. But we responded really well to the goal. Five points down and we got it back to one or two again. It shows the fight in the team but it was not enough today.”
Kilcoo just wanted it more and they fought for every scrap of possession and turnover they could get their hands on.
Ballyboden did not display that same hunger but Rainbow was adamant the 2016 All-Ireland champions hadn’t underestimated the opposition.
“There was no hint of complacency, there never has been in this team in the preparation that we do. We are not a team that would ever take things for granted. That was never in our minds.”
Kilcoo assistant coach Conleith Gilligan thought his players deserved everything they got. “It is great for the players, they worked so hard in a game that ebbed and flowed, they held on and it was fairytale stuff. But the goals were the difference, we got three goal chances and took two of them and that was ultimately enough. Corofin have a huge advantage in the final, they’ve been there and they’ve won it. They will be favourites again but Kilcoo have been underdogs all the way through, so we won’t mind.”
Scorers for Kilcoo: D Branagan, R Johnston (1-0 each), R McEvoy, P Devlin (0-3 (2f each), A Morgan, S Johnston (0-1 each).
Scorers for Ballyboden St Enda’s: C Basquel (0-4, 4f), R Basquel (0-4, 3f), C Keaney, K Kennedy, W Egan (0-1 each).
KILCOO: M McCourt; N Branagan, R McEvoy, N McEvoy; E Branagan, Aaron Branagan, D Branagan; Aaron Morgan, Aidan Branagan; D Ward, P Devlin, R Johnston; S Johnston, J Johnston, C Laverty.
Subs: J Clarke for D Branagan (BC, 55), F McGreevy for Ward (60), Anthony Morgan for Laverty (BC, 60)
BALLYBODEN: D Gogan; B Dwan, S Clayton, C Flaherty; K Kennedy, R McDaid, B Bobbett; MD Macauley, D O’Mahoney; D O’Reilly, C Basquel, A Flood; R McGarry, R Basquel, C Keaney.
Subs: A Waters for Bobbett (36), T Hayes for McGarry (38), D Nelson for Waters (BC, 41), W Egan for Flood (47), J Holland for Macauley (BC, 52)
Referee: Derek O’Mahony (Tipperary).