Kilcoo complete unlikely fairytale climb to the summit

Johnston brothers conjure last-gasp goal in extra-time to leave Kilmacud shattered

Kilcoo (Down) 2-8 Kilmacud Crokes (Dublin) 0-13

Every bit of this ought to have been impossible. Kilcoo as All-Ireland champions is not a thing that should be.

They come from a tiny village, so that should rule them out before they even get started. They have a catchment area populated by more sheep than people, so that ought to set their ceiling far lower than Croke Park.

They were playing intermediate football in Down at the turn of the century – and not doing hectic at it either. It stretches all credulity that a road from there to here exists.


And even if you allow for all that, the particulars of this final should have seen them heading back up the M1 on Saturday night on a deathly quiet bus. Kilcoo were dead and buried twice over and still they found a way to breathe and sing and roar when it mattered.

It came down to the three Johnston brothers, two of whom were borderline crippled with cramp when the final attack happened. In the 80th minute, with Kilmacud two points up, Shealin Johnston made one last run and found one last pass to Ryan Johnston in the Crokes square. His shot was blocked on the line, only for Jerome Johnston to follow up and bury the winner.

For years, the three brothers have been the stardust in the team – willowy, slippery, often mercurial. Their father Jerome managed Kilcoo back in the 1990s when the club was playing in Division Three of Down football.

For the club to get from there to being All-Ireland champions in a quarter of a century should, of course, have been beyond any reasonable notion of possibility. For his three sons to combine for a goal with time up on the clock and the game all but gone? Unfathomable.

“Shealin turned down the line and at this stage my legs were completely gone,” said match-winner Jerome afterwards. “As soon as he got it I shouted to Ryan, ‘Get to the box’. Because I was thinking if he launches it he has more height than me and I could get off his scraps. Next thing Shealin, I don’t know how, picked him out with his right foot. Right place. right time. Couldn’t believe it to be honest, when I seen it coming across to me. I was like, ‘Is this for real?’

“Daddy has got a really, really bad heart. The year he was with Loughinisland he actually spent six weeks in the city hospital. He was told at that stage to quit. He did quit for a couple of years but he’s a relentless man. Mummy, everybody spoke with him saying it could take your life. We thought with Lar [Jerome’s son] coming into the house that it might change. But he just loves football. It wouldn’t matter if there was an under-eight match in the club, he’d be at it. That’s just the type of man he is. He’s absolutely obsessed.”

Monumental freeze

The Down champions should have lost this several times. They started terribly, trailed by seven early in the second half and still they somehow survived. It took a fluke of a goal and a monumental freeze by their opponents with the line in sight. But when the game was in the balance, they got the last score of the second halves of normal time and extra-time.

Kilmacud will have to watch this back a few times to work out how it came to this. They were immaculate in the first half of normal time, leading 0-8 to 0-2 at the break and barely breaking a sweat.

They butchered a huge goal chance soon after the restart when Kilcoo defender Micéal Rooney came from nowhere to bat the ball away from Craig Dias with the goal gaping but when Dias swished his second point of the night soon after, Crokes were seven points up and cruising.

But then they froze.

They stopped adding to their lead and Kilcoo found a route back. Paul Devlin started finding his range from frees and the game-changing score came when a badly-hit 45 from Kilcoo goalie Niall Kane deflected off Ross McGowan and into the net in the 46th minute. Suddenly, the gap was down to two points and the Down champions had all the momentum.

Kilcoo got the last two scores of the hour to make it 1-7 to 0-10 and force extra-time. But Crokes came again. Cian O'Connor was a revelation off the bench, kicking three scores including an inspirational one from play. Callum Pearson chipped in as well, pushing Crokes 0-13 to 1-8 ahead as the clock ticked into the red.

It wasn’t enough. The Johnstons came along and plucked immortality down from the shelf. Madness.

KILCOO: Niall Kane (1-0, 45); Niall Branagan, Ryan McEvoy, Aaron Branagan; Micéal Rooney, Daryl Branagan, Eugene Branagan; Dylan Ward, Aaron Morgan; Ceilum Docherty, Jerome Johnston (0-1), Shealin Johnston (1-0); Conor Laverty (0-2), Ryan Johnston, Paul Devlin (0-4, 0-3 frees). Subs: Anthony Morgan (0-1) for R Johnston, 34 mins; Aidan Branagan for Aaron Morgan, 45 mins; R Johnston for S Johnston, 59 mins; S Johnston for Rooney, 70 mins; Justin Clarke for Docherty, 76 mins; Seán Óg McCusker for S Johnston, 81 mins

KILMACUD CROKES: Conor Ferris; Michael Mullin, Rory O'Carroll, Ross McGowan; Andrew McGowan (0-1), Cillian O'Shea, Dan O'Brien; Ben Shovlin, Craig Dias (0-2); Aidan Jones, Dara Mullen (0-1, mark), Shane Horan (0-3); Hugh Kenny, Tom Fox (0-1, free), Shane Cunningham (0-1, mark). Subs: Cian O'Connor (0-3, 0-2 frees) for Fox, 42 mins; Conor Casey for Horan, 55 mins; Anthony Quinn for Jones, 55 mins; Callum Pearson (0-1) for Kenny, 55 mins; Conor Kinsella for Dias, 60 mins; Theo Clancy for Mullin, 61 mins; Jones for R McGowan, 66 mins; Horan for Mullen, 70 mins

Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone)

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times