If being All-Ireland champions has a transformative effect on teams, the process was fairly startling in the case of Kilcoo. With last season’s All-Ireland final entering two added-on minutes at the end of extra-time, they turned over possession around centre-field and within 13 seconds had scored the goal that turned a two-point deficit into a 1-11 to 0-13 victory.
Had Kilmacud Crokes kept them out or restricted the damage to a point, Kilcoo would still be caterpillars. Instead, they took flight as butterflies, flapping their black-and-white wings.
This weekend they are hoping to win a third successive Ulster club football title, having missed out on 2020 when no provincial or All-Ireland championships happened because of the ravages of Coronavirus.
The final against Derry champions Glen is the greatly anticipated renewal of a rivalry that also ended up in extra-time last season. Kilcoo found the wherewithal to win that, as they had to in three of the four matches of their run-in to the All-Ireland title.
This season, the champions have combined the toil and sweat of claustrophobic contests in the Down county championship with a liberated, freely moving style in Ulster. To date the wins over Ballybay from Monaghan and Fermanagh’s Enniskillen Gaels have both been by double-digit margins.
Ballybay had just come off an impressive defeat of Armagh powerhouse Crossmaglen but they were left for dust after half-time.
Paul Finlay, a veteran of championship wins for both Ballybay and Monaghan, is asked what impacted most in the quarter-final against Kilcoo; what caused most damage.
“Their intensity in play and how they can sustain it for long periods. They’re playing at a high level, almost intercounty. That’s the pace of the game that they’re bringing you to and if you can’t stick with it they really get on top of you.
“They’re very good at nurturing the ball and well-drilled with great blends of youth and experience as well as pace and power all around the field. They can blitz teams in a short period of time and once they get that lead, teams find it really hard to get back on top.
“We would like to have been a better test and I’m sure Enniskillen would as well but this [Sunday] is the first big test in Ulster.”
After that match, which had occasioned a bit of a subtext about how the Ballybay manager Jerome Johnston had to step away for the Ulster quarter-final because of his extensive family connections in Kilcoo, one of his sons, Jerome junior was asked about how the team had apparently stepped things up after a scramble through Down.
“Yeah but the thing is,” he replied, “some of those teams we’ve played four times this year – in the league before you even play them in the championship. As well as that, we had played teams earlier in the championship and the more and more you play teams, especially in such quick succession, the closer they’re going to get to you.”
The county final had been another episode of hand-to-hand combat in which the All-Ireland champions looked anything but assured.
Mark Poland, the former Down All-Ireland finalist, was a selector with finalists Warrenpoint, who he will manage next season. On the basis of the county championship, he has reservations about the idea that Kilcoo have been “liberated” by winning the club All-Ireland.
“I wouldn’t agree with that. If you watched the Down championship, you wouldn’t have said that. I spoke to Darragh O’Hanlon [former Kilcoo and Down footballer, whose career was prematurely ended by injury] after they beat Warrenpoint and he said that they hadn’t played well in the Down championship.
“They nearly went out against Clonduff in the quarter-final. We had them on the ropes and had three or four opportunities but our decision-making let us down. Any of those chances and they were gone as well. Only in the last few games have they opened up.
“You could say that Ballybay came through a big game against Crossmaglen and are an older team so that probably took something out of them. They didn’t have the legs for Kilcoo, who have a serious running game. The Enniskillen semi-final was over by half-time and Sunday will be the acid test of whether they are actually getting better.”
He doesn’t, however, disagree with Johnston junior’s analysis that familiarity has helped competing clubs in the county.
“There’s no doubt, particularly with the way the league worked in Down this year. The top four teams played each other three or four times before the championship kicked off.”
For all that, Kilcoo have won 10 of the last 11 county titles and top the Down roll of honour. Whatever about familiarity, such success is rarely a prescription for enduring popularity nor does the club court it.
Their footballer of the year, Eugene Branagan, forthrightly dismissed the county team as “not having a winning mentality” last May. In the meantime, the club’s joint captain Conor Lavery has been appointed Down manager, having landed an Ulster under-20 title last year.
According to Poland, some of the unpopularity is attributed to jealousy on the part of other clubs.
“That’s true to an extent. We’d all like that level of success. They’re a small area and – you’ve probably heard this 100 times over this last number of years – a tight community. Football’s all that really matters to them and they never know when they’re beaten. It’s a great mentality for a team to have. They never get beaten by much and in the Down championship they rarely get beaten at all this last 10 years.”
Both he and Finlay believe that Sunday will be the moment of truth for Kilcoo. There’s little between the clubs even if the champions have looked more impressive. Glen after all, won the marquee Ulster clash when beating Tyrone’s Errigal Ciaráin in the quarter-final but stuttered against Cargin in the following round.
Finlay believes that Glen’s manager Malachy O’Rourke, who would be welcomed by nearly all county teams, never mind clubs and with whom he won Ulster medals for Monaghan, can be a factor but the central issue for him is to what extent Kilcoo have kicked on this season.
“Were Kilcoo playing within themselves because they hadn’t won an All-Ireland. Is that pressure lifted now? That’s the question for me.
“You don’t see those fellas speaking to the media much but Aaron Branagan was saying that. The feeling within the group is that they are enjoying themselves and you probably saw where they have to turn on the scoreboard at training to prevent rows!”
Poland still found positives in Glen’s underwhelming performance against Cargin.
“There was one stat I heard after Glen won the semi-final. They only turned the ball over five times in the whole game, which is incredible. Kilcoo are the same. They never panic and are always in the game and regardless of how their previous games have gone they’ll always be there or thereabouts.
“When two teams guard possession so well, it means that a mistake might make all the difference.
“I know a lower-key, harder route to the final is preferable but they won’t be influenced at all by big wins. The mentality of the Kilcoo boys isn’t like that. That’s why they’re champions.”
Ulster club SFC final: Glen (Derry) v Kilcoo (Down), Sunday Athletic Grounds, 1pm - Live on TG4