Down kingpins Kilcoo aiming to Cross a big hurdle

Brian McIver’s side face Armagh stalwarts in an intriguing Ulster club semi-final

“I don’t do pressure. It is the players who have the responsibility,” says Paul McIver with such low-key candour that you know he isn’t trying to convince himself. Still, given the richness of the new rivalry which has sprung from nowhere between Kilcoo, Down champions for the fourth year running and Crossmaglen, whose reputation casts a shadow throughout the province, how could McIver remain so calm?

Maybe it is because he knows that at the age of 35, he could still be a player himself if the breaks of the game had been kinder to him. Given that he is a son of Brian McIver, one of the most highly respected coaches in the province, there was always a good chance that he would end up passing on what he knows of the game.

As it turned out, that decision was made for him. Paul McIver had the stuff to break into the Ballinderry senior side at the age of 17 and had two seasons of experience behind him when, early into the 2002 season, he tore his cruciate ligament while turning to receive a pass from a team-mate. He was wearing blades, which were the new thing in footwear. It felt as if his knee and lower leg remained taut and planted into the ground while his body turned to meet the ball.

He spent ten months on the lonesome road, recuperating and watching his team win all in sight, from the Derry club championship to the All-Ireland final on St Patrick’s Day.


He made it back onto the field when he was 21 but just over a year later, he tore his other cruciate ligament. All of the journals and articles he read about the injury had indicated that one of the cruelties of the cruciate injury is that it can leave the other leg more vulnerable to the same. So it proved.

“And to be honest after all the work I had put in to come back from the first one,” he said this week during a free class in St Benedict’s, the Randalstown, Co Antrim school where he teaches.

The bug

“I had started doing a bit of coaching underage just to keep myself from going mad and I suppose I got the bug from coaching and dealing with people. It all seemed to stem from there. So I lost out on my playing career but it has kept me going. I would love to still be playing football, like. Some of my friends and boys I grew up with are all still playing. That is just the path you take.”

In the decade plus since McIver’s career was effectively ended by injury, the cruciate curse has become the talk of Gaelic football. In addition to the gruelling and monotonous schedule required to make a full recovery, it can leave an athlete doubting themselves.

“It is the scare of: if this ever happens to me again,” McIver recalls.

“You read up and you find out there is a greater chance of it occurring in the other leg and you look into the hereditary aspect. You could be in rehab for six months and then six months getting back to the playing base and the confidence that comes with twisting and turning and impact.

“Every time I see a boy coming back from a cruciate now, I have the utmost respect for them. I ended up doing a lot of research in it and I did a Masters in sports psychology. And one of the areas I researched was on rehabilitation for younger players. So cruciate injuries are a massive issue at the moment. Whether it is to do with training techniques or the injury prevention that maybe a lot of clubs aren’t doing; I do think it is an area of research that needs to be developed.

“Advances have come on massively but it is still a seven- or eight month period of recovery. The pain of the initial shock is just excruciating. You couldn’t describe the pain that goes through your body for the first three of four minutes You would swear your leg was broken. The first time I did it I thought my leg was up around my head for some reason. Then you think you can play away and all of a sudden it goes again whatever action or movement you do through the knee.”

Coaching kept him in touch in a game he confesses to being “mad about”. When he was a kid, his father Brian would take him to “training with the school and the wee teams he had down the years”. His father’s friends – Philip Kerr, Adrian McGuckin – were also involved in coaching so he just became used to the language in the car and around the house.

He acquired gilt-edge experience managing the Derry U-21s and minors and Tyrone senior side Dromore before succeeding Jim McCorry, who was invited to become the Down senior manager, at Kilcoo.

In a way, it was a dream position. Kilcoo were three-in-a-row county champions, and making up for all the disappointments the club had suffered from 1937 through to their 2009 revival. But that brought its own demands. McIver’s primary task, surely, was to maintain the success. It is easier for a manager to come into a dressing room and start from scratch.

“The way I looked at it with the players was: yes, they had been successful but every year ended in defeat at some stage. We had something to work on. They hadn’t achieved the ultimate dream they wanted. So we decided to take it step by step.”

Brave the roads of winter football in Ulster and sooner or later, you will meet Crossmaglen. They sparked with Kilcoo in controversial fashion in the Ulster club final of 2012, which Cross one by 3-9 to 1-9.

Afterwards, Aaron Cunningham, Crossmaglen's stylish young forward, said that he had been racially abused during the match. Following an investigation, one Kilcoo fan received a lifetime ban and a player was suspended for four months.

A draw

When the clubs met again in the winter of 2013, it finished in a draw at Páirc Eisler and the replay, at the Athletics Grounds, went to extra time. To general disbelief, Kilcoo won by 3-10 to 1-08.

It wasn’t that Kilcoo’s hadn’t advertised their potential, more so that Cross’ s reputation made them seem invincible. They had owned the Ulster club championship from 2006-2012 with the sole exception of the 2009 season: liberated from Ulster, St Gall’s promptly won the All-Ireland. But good teams came and went over that period. As it happened, Crossmaglen had lost half their team through retirement after the 2012 season.

The high quality and drama of that 2013 series helped to clear the air between the clubs and it sets the tone for tomorrow’s highly anticipated match. John McEntee and Oisin McConville will form the opposition management team when the teams become reacquainted in Newry. McIver’s attitude is simple. He didn’t see the games in 2012 or 2013.

“And I have no interest in looking at them. The teams are under different management. The players are different. The environment will be different on Sunday. So they are of no relevance to what will happen this weekend.

“I suppose that the last few games have been classics with both teams going at it full throttle; that is great. And the rivalry is great. But that is for the public. Look, our players know there is not that great a history in the overall scheme of things. So we take this game as it comes.”

After putting up 3-10 against Castlewellan in the Down county final, Kilcoo met Cavan champions Kilcoo in what turned out to be a dismal game for neutrals. It finished 3-15 to 0-5. McIver was surprised by the scale of the win if not the fact of it.

Were fresh

“Kingscourt had played 12 games to win a county championship and a number of league games. The legs were gone and I suppose our boys were fresh. We had a three-week break. But that margin of victory was a surprise. Any day you win an Ulster club match by 19 points is one you have to savour.”

Scores will not be thrown about as easily tomorrow. Kilcoo’s form has been the most reliable aspect of a turbulent few years for Down football. However, they are still waiting on their first ever Ulster title and will have to slay the dragon all over again if they are to realise that.

“Truthfully, we haven’t talked about it,” McIver says.

“We sat down and just decided to take each step as it comes and that we wouldn’t look ahead of ourselves. If that gets us to our end goal, brilliant. If not, then we start all over again. I know that isn’t the line that the media want to hear but that is what we focus on.

“Cross are probably disappointed with their achievements of the last three years because their history means that if they aren’t winning Ulster clubs, their season is a disappointment. It is different for us. We have never won an Ulster club title so we can’t put that pressure on ourselves. If we get our performance right and a bit of luck then that bit of history may change. But it is step by step.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times