Branagan and most Kilcoo team-mates don’t want to be stars of the county Down

‘I just honestly have no ambition to play for Down and I don’t mind saying that’

It is an unusual reply to a seldom asked question. Is it an ambition of yours to play for the county?

"When you're brought up in Kilcoo and the boys who trained you all your life are the older members now and stuff – I just have honestly no ambition to play for Down and I don't mind saying that."

The speaker is Eugene Branagan, a big influence on his club Kilcoo's All-Ireland success and man of the match in the final defeat of Kilmacud Crokes. He is back in Croke Park to accept the AIB GAA Club Player of the Year award as well as a place on the club team of the year.

As is often the case with successful clubs in unsuccessful counties, Branagan sees no point in intercounty engagement. Down were subjected to a thumping Ulster championship defeat by Monaghan last weekend, having just been relegated to Division Three – a descent that pushes them, five-times All-Ireland winners, into the Tier 2 Tailteann Cup.


All of this is more information than Branagan strictly needs to defend his position. There had been talk in the autumn that Kilcoo's Conor Laverty might form a sort of super group with Donegal's All-Ireland winning manager Jim McGuinness to take over Down.

It fell through, however, leaving one of the county’s football aristocracy James McCartan, winner of two All-Irelands and the manager when the county surprised everyone in 2010 by getting the final, to take up the challenge out of a sense of duty.

The season has not been a success but there wasn’t much more McCartan could do about it. He was rumoured to have nearly walked after a recent training weekend descended into what might politely be called “non-compliance”.

Branagan, one of a family of sheep farmers in Kilcoo, is unsparing in his views of the county.

“I think there’s a core of players who don’t know how to win. They haven’t the winning mentality. I think that’s why a lot of Kilcoo boys don’t want to be involved – they’re just there but I don’t think they’re there to win. That’s the difference between Kilcoo and the county.

“Maybe if there was a different manager – Conor Laverty took the 20s and it was the first Ulster they’d won in maybe 12 years. He changed the mindset but I think it would take a different manager for a lot of Kilcoo players to come in.”

But is that fair on McCartan’s career achievements?

“I think James McCartan is a good manager. It just shows in the past they were just a point I think off Cork that day so it was there. It’s just trying to get players to buy in.”

Yet, not all Kilcoo players turned down the county.

“Yeah, two lads went in – and took a lot of abuse for it!”

Does this uncompromising attitude not run the risk of making Kilcoo disliked elsewhere in the county?

“Oh, yeah, I think that really fuels our fire. Everyone seems to be on our backs and that’s really what keeps us going, that’s what we love. We feel everyone is against us, county boards, the whole lot, but that’s what we want.”

He still finds the All-Ireland club win hard to credit. “Last gasp, unbelievable. It was the best possible way to win, just that comeback.” He adds that the team’s stats log records the final as their worst display of the year.

Since then there have been departures, his brother Aidan, now 39, among them, and also team manager Mickey Moran, a well-travelled Derry man, who got Kilcoo there in the end having lost an All-Ireland in extra time to Corofin and then having had to put up with the frustration of playing at their best during the pandemic when there was no competition outside the county.


A couple of months before the All-Ireland, Moran had reacted emotionally to a poor night’s training, saying he wanted to manage them to an All-Ireland. “From then,” says Branagan, “we hadn’t one bad training session.”

The final meeting came in March when the manager announced his departure.

“We always said that we wanted whatever day he was going up the lane, that he would have an All-Ireland medal in his back pocket. That night leaving the meeting we gave him a guard of honour out and you were delighted. I know he was leaving but it was as good as the All-Ireland win, him leaving that night. Everyone was just satisfied that we’d done it for him.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times