It was one of those late July nights when you couldn't imagine summer having a sell-by date. Down had just beaten Monaghan after extra-time in the Ulster Under-20 final and the long whistle had sent them bucking and colting around the Athletic Grounds. It was the county's first Ulster title at any grade in 12 years. Bedlam went into bat, shaping for a long innings.
Conor Laverty got in around his players quickly. He had a needle to thread. As Down manager, he knew his team was due their moment. But he knew the opposition too and he knew that more had ended for them than just a run in a competition. The Monaghan players had spent the previous fortnight grieving for their captain, Brendan Óg Ó Dufaigh, who lost his life in a car crash on his way home from the semi-final.
So Laverty called his players into a circle and even if you couldn’t make out from the stands or on TV what he was saying, you had no trouble decoding his message. His spoke for only a few seconds but as soon as he was done, every Down player turned away from the huddle and went and found a Monaghan player to console.
Seán Boylan was part of Laverty’s backroom team last summer, still trucking at the grand old age of 78. He’s seen it all and done it all and probably invented most of it. He watched Laverty that night and wasn’t a bit surprised. Humanity, decency, human connection - it’s who he had been hanging out with all summer.
Any of the managers that I worked under that were brilliant, the common thread is that they were men I loved
“It’s lovely to see values in action,” Boylan says. “He knew a lot of those Monaghan boys from his time there the previous year. It had been an awful time for them, those two weeks of trying to come back and play the game. In the end, we were probably lucky enough to win because they ran out of steam in extra-time, with the exertions of the two weeks.
“That’s him, really. Throughout the time I was up there, everything was done with a purpose. The way he managed those boys through Covid, the way every lad coming in was clear on what they had to do to be allowed to train, the mask-wearing, the coming-and-going, all of it, Conor had it down to a tee. You just love to see excellence in action, don’t you?”
Laverty's stint as Down under-20 manager only lasted another week, as Roscommon were too good for them in the All-Ireland semi-final. But the run to an Ulster title marked him out as a future manager of the Down senior team in everyone's eyes. It was even a serious prospect for a week or two in mid-winter, with talk of Jim McGuinness coming on board as his coach. But the timing wasn't right for lots of reasons, not the least of which was another club championship tilt with Kilcoo.
Laverty will be back in the Athletic Grounds tomorrow, aiming at a defence of Kilcoo’s Ulster club crown. It happens every so often that a club goes on a seemingly endless run within its own county, becoming so dominant as to make all seem inevitable. Kilcoo are that team in Down at the minute, having won 10 of the past 13 titles, including nine of the last 10.
And yet when Laverty made his senior debut in 2003, even just one county title was a distant dream for Kilcoo. Inevitable? It was scarcely imaginable. They hadn’t won a county title since 1937. They hadn’t even been in a senior final since 1948. They had just a single minor county title in their whole history. The idea that they would be drinking the Down championship in one gulp within a decade would have got some laugh if you’d brought it up.
Look what happened. They bounced to that first title in 2009, closing off a 72-year gap in the process. They won the Down minor title that year too - and the year after, and the year after. They have fed three different generations through to the senior side and are working on a fourth, with some of the 2019 minors finding their feet in this championship. And through it all, Laverty has been an ever-present.
Kilcoo has always had access to parts of him unreachable from the outside world. He was Down captain when he retired from inter-county action in 2016 at just 31, reasoning that he owed his club the last good years his body would allow. Six seasons on, he is still starting every game, still the on-field coach for all the various Johnstons and Branagans who scuttle around piling on the scores for them.
On the face of it, you might imagine his longevity to be counterintuitive, given the way Kilcoo set up in most games. In another life, Laverty would have been a prototype nippy corner forward - small, fast, dynamite off either foot. Kilcoo spend so much time entrenched in their own half looking to hit teams on the break that you’d have thought they might have ground the football out of him by now.
Not a bit of it. During the first lockdown in 2020, he did a highly entertaining online chat with Derry legend Tony Scullion where he talked in depth about coaching and the joys of thinking about the game in different ways. In it, he told a story about taking a school team in nine-a-side game the previous summer.
“We were playing this team that had stuffed us in a few challenge matches,” he remembered. “Like, they were definitely better than us. And I thought, ‘Well it’s not really fair on these young boys to be getting stuffed all the time. So we decided just to give them the kick-out and let them try to break us down.
“And afterwards, the manager of the other team was laughing going, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ And I just said, ‘Look, it was a bit of crack teaching them something different. If wee boys can learn different things about the game, there’s no harm in it at all.”
All of which goes into making Conor Laverty one of the more interesting people in northern football. At home, he is a sheep farmer. At work, he is the GAA officer in Trinity College in Dublin. He beats up and down the M1 three days a week, tending to both flocks. When he gets in the front door, he has five sons pinballing around the place. Somewhere in the midst of it all, he is a Kilcoo footballer.
And he will surely be, in time, the Down senior manager. James McCartan will reap the benefits of what Laverty poured into that Ulster-winning team for the next couple of years at least and after that, who knows? In his chat with Scullion, Laverty was revealing when he talked about what the best managers he had brought to the party.
"Any of the managers that I worked under that were brilliant, the common thread is that they were men I loved," he said. "I'd have done anything for them. I'd have run to the top of Donard and back if they'd asked me. Trust is a brilliant thing. Once that trust is there, the boundaries are extended all the time."
That’s the bargain he makes, whether he’s playing or coaching or managing.
All in. Always.