All-Ireland Club SFC final: Football, faith and farming - that's life in Kilcoo

Conor Laverty on a typical jinking run in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Ballyboden
Conor Laverty says Kilcoo's GAA players love their club too much to even consider emigrating
AIB All-Ireland SFC club final: Corofin v Kilcoo
Date: Sunday, 19 January Venue: Croke Park, Dublin Throw-in: 16:00 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Ulster MW, the BBC Sport website, app and BBC Sounds.

Conor Laverty is momentarily lost for an answer. He shakes his head and his eyes are open wide as a smile breaks out.

He's just been asked to imagine that there was no gaelic football club in his picturesque home village of Kilcoo.

He cannot visualise it. Kilcoo Owen Roes and their black and white colours are just too interwoven into the fabric of the small, rural local community.

"You hear of other clubs all throughout Ireland and players emigrating. Particularly young people heading away," says the club's 35-year-old talisman, whose Down career included playing in the 2010 All-Ireland Final when the Mourne County were edged out by Cork.

"We've been very lucky because we're such loyal people. We're very loyal to our club.

"We don't seem to have that as much as other places. I suppose that comes from that wee bit of bond and tightness within the village.

"Football is our life. We live and breathe it. The club is the heartbeat of the village and the parish. And from no age we've just wanted to wear that black and white jersey."

Kilcoo beauty takes breath away

Situated in the heart of the scenic Mourne Mountains, some four miles west of Castlewellan and six miles east of Rathfriland, Kilcoo's beauty does take the breath away when you land in the village.

Laverty's pride is palpable as he registers your impressions.

"You probably don't appreciate it because you see it every day but when you hear people coming to our village and saying such nice things about the scenery and the people, it's very pleasing to hear that and it does remind you how special the place is."

The local mountainous terrain makes sheep farming the ubiquitous local agricultural enterprise.

Aaron Branagan - one of five brothers who will most likely start against Corofin at Croke Park on Sunday - made headlines in November after scoring the crucial goal in the Ulster semi-final against Derrygonnelly when saying that "mass, sheep and football" summed up Kilcoo's essence.

"People took it as a wee bit of a joke, and it wasn't a joke. That's life in Kilcoo. That's just who we are and we're very proud of that," adds the former Down star.

Laverty's own favourite past time outside football, though with his GAA commitments, he cannot have much leisure time, is training sheep dogs. Given this man's work ethic, one can assume his collies are good on their rounds.

Faith is equally important to Laverty.

"It does us no harm at all to have good faith and to be able to bring that into our lives and try to bring our children up [that way]. For someone to have done that for us and for us to pass it down the generations is a good way to be."

Conor Laverty on a typical run in the All-Ireland Under-21 Final defeat by Galway in 1995 when the Tribesmen earned a 6-5 to 4-6 victory
Laverty's talent was evident from an early age and he helped Down reach the All-Ireland Under-21 final in 2005 when they were narrowly beaten by Galway in a high-scoring contest

Laverty ability obvious from an early age

Drifting back to Laverty's own childhood, his football prowess was evident from early on.

His cousin, 1991 All-Ireland winner with Down, Martin Laverty remembers being struck by the youngster's ability even when he was playing in the under-12 grade.

"He wasn't the biggest - still isn't - but even watching him at under-12 level, he had a great brain on him and a great work ethic," recalls the Castlewellan man, who captained the Down minors and under-21s, in addition to winning Ulster and All-Ireland medals in 1991.

"He worked hard, always wanted to do well and get better.

"What's always helped him is that he's an intelligent footballer. He's able to see a pass and process things before the ball is coming towards him.

"And he's really good at making space. He very rarely loses possession of the ball when it's coming into him. He's always winning it."

'I wouldn't have got into Trinity College'

Martin is not in the least surprised that his cousin is already making waves in coaching, with the Kilcoo man's day job full-time GAA development officer at Trinity College in Dublin, in addition to being part of the management team of new Monaghan senior boss Seamus McEnaney.

For good measure, Laverty finds time to manage his own club's minor side.

"Conor was coaching some of the Kilcoo under-age teams when he was 15 or 16," recalls the 1991 All-Ireland medallist.

"That has rubbed off a lot, I would say, in the club. I know he's a really, really good coach. I know the young boys and a lot of people around Kilcoo have a lot of time for his coaching ability.

"He has a lot on his plate but that shows his dedication to the GAA."

Conor, himself, laughs that his academic prowess "wouldn't have got into Trinity College" but he insists he does not feel out of place in the world-renowned Dublin university which, in a sporting context, has been more renowned for the oval ball.

"In a way they are a small, wee tight-knit [GAA] community as well. They don't have the same resources or funding as some of the bigger, high-profile colleges so there are certain aspects I can relate to."

Conor Laverty at Kilcoo's pre-match news conference last week
Conor Laverty says the Kilcoo players must not get caught up in the emotion of Sunday's All-Ireland decider

'Players must take emotion out of it'

Laverty and his Kilcoo team-mates' examination hall on Sunday will be a couple of miles away from College Green when they face mighty Corofin at Croke Park.

The Magpies' joint-captain knows it will be an emotional occasion as Kilcoo folk decamp to Croker but cautions that the players must attempt to take sentiment out of the day.

"Particularly for some of the older men who have gone through their lives giving everything to this club, they are getting the opportunity to wear their black and white colours to Croke Park. That on its own is a very, very special thing.

"[But] There's no emotion for the players. For us, it's about getting a performance on the day that will do us proud and do our village proud.

"If we go there and perform to the best that we possibly can, that's all we can ask for."

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