‘Fascinating’ first meeting with Moran, playing without knee cartilage and landing the Holy Grail at 36

CONOR LAVERTY WAS one of the last men to emerge from Kilcoo’s dressing room on Saturday night.

Kilcoo’s Conor Laverty celebrates at the end of the game.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

He walked out with his gearbag in one hand and a glint in his eye. Almost 20 years after he made his senior debut for the club as a 17-year-old, he stood here as joint-captain of the All-Ireland champions. 

Two years earlier, Laverty was consoled by his children on the Croke Park sod after Corofin outlasted them in extra-time.

On Monday night, he tweeted a picture where two of his sons were in bed with the Andy Merrigan Cup safely tucked in between them.

The Andy Merrigan cup was in safe hands last night. I hope their dreams come true someday. They owe us a few days out in Croker. #apicturesaysa1000words #💙💙🏁 pic.twitter.com/exP8oEEcUb

— Conor Laverty (@ConorLav14) February 13, 2022

Laverty has played a central role in the Kilcoo story. That goes back to his goaled penalty in the 2003 Division 1 league final, a win that many in the club reference as the day they believed they could win the Down championship.

He’s the only player still involved from that team and is the club’s most decorated player with 10 county medals, two Ulsters and now an All-Ireland crown.

He was Down captain when he retired from inter-county action aged 31 in 2016, keen to give some of his best years to the club.

He was heavily involved in Kilcoo’s underage structures, managing future team-mates like Shealin Johnston, Anthony Morgan and Sean Og McCusker at the U16 grade in 2017.

He was part of a Kilcoo delegation that sought out Mickey Moran to become their manager. When things were going wrong in the first-half on Saturday, he led the line and was their only player to score. 

And he’s been operating without a cartilage in his knee since Moran took charge.

There was plenty to discuss with the man who insisted he wouldn’t lift the cup until his manager joined him on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

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What were the emotions like at the final whistle?

“Just madness. That’s Kilcoo, just madness is us well summed up. It’s hard to even take in but it’s something you’ve dreamed of all your life. You’ve reached the pinnacle, there’s no next step.”

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Conleith Gilligan said you’ve been playing with no cartilage in your knee since they took charge, is this the end for you? 

“Only for there’s good men that have been looking after me, they’re keeping me right and on the field. I’ll just really enjoy tonight. I don’t know what the future holds.

“It was always the dream, to get to here. To be able to stand in Croke Park with Aidan (Branagan) and lift the Andy Merrigan Cup, it’s amazing.”

How important was Mickey Moran’s speech at half-time?

“The things that Mickey said in there definitely hit home and got the reaction he needed. He’s just a special man and has a special way with words. Whenever he went into that detail, we knew we had let ourselves down in the first-half and we needed a kick, we needed a reaction.  

“Today it was just meant to be. There’s no way we were being beaten in two All-Ireland club finals in extra-time. How would you live with that?”

Kilcoo’s Conor Laverty with his sons after the 2020 final defeat to Corofin.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Talk us through the end of the game. To win it like that was special. 

“Something was written in the stars. All year, it’s just felt right. Even for Mickey, someone was up there looking down, saying ‘this is the right moment for this man to reach the Holy Grail’.

“For him to say he was manager of an All-Ireland winning team after being in five finals, four defeats, for his legacy. It would always have been said he was a great manager and the players that played for him would always speak so highly of him, but it would have been said that he didn’t manage a team to an All-Ireland.

“We spoke about that as players recently. Over the past few weeks, we spoke about when that man pulls out at the top of the lane for the last time – and hopefully that’s not for a while yet – that he’s going out that lane as an All-Ireland winning manager.”

You were part of a delegation of players who met Mickey about taking over in late 2018. What do you remember about that meeting? 

“He came to Kilcoo. I think it was to test what the journey was like too, that’s maybe what his thinking was on that. Three or four players met with him and then some of the committee members met after that.

“It was the most fascinating meeting I was involved in in my life. He never took his eyes off you whenever he spoke. He spoke in great detail, asked really good questions. 

“Leaving, I shook his hand and said ‘I’ll see you in a couple of weeks’ and he sorta laughed. That night, me and Aidan actually put on our runners and went to the forest park and run ourselves ‘til we couldn’t run any more.

“We said going home in the van that this man’s gonna get us to the ultimate prize. We knew leaving that night that he was the man for us, that he was gonna win us this. There was no doubt in my mind of that.”

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It’s unusual to see players so attached to an outside manager.

“There is a special bond, but all the teams he’s managed, a lot of players would say they had that bond with him. This was just a missing part of the jigsaw. It fitted both – it fitted this club and our team because we were chasing that dream, we were chasing to try and be the best team in Ireland, and probably he was chasing it too.

“My time was running out, some of the older lads’ time was running out and so was his. But you could see it in his eyes. The first night he spoke to us, he had us eating out of the palm of his hand. Some of the places we’ve went in training, dark, dark places, tough, tough sessions, and there was never a word.

“You go in there and 1-40, even the lads who don’t get minutes, they love Mickey. He’s just a special man. When anyone has issues or stuff going on in their personal life, he’s so good to you. He’ll just walk past and put his arm around you and say a wee word.

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“I know myself, one of my wee boys wasn’t well before Christmas and you’re up to high doe, you didn’t wanna miss training. He was like ‘cub, go and be with your family, your family needs you’.

“He’s just a great man at putting your mind at ease and leaving you that there’s no stress with him. He’s always looking out for the player, he’s always got the player’s best interests at heart, and that’s a very special thing to have.” 

Kilcoo manager Mickey Moran before the Ulster quarter-final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Did you always have it in your head to get him up to lift the cup?

“I promised him I was sending him up them steps. I was not leaving there until he came up them steps. That was it. We would have give up our All-Ireland medal, every medal we had, to make sure Mickey Moran had managed a team to an All-Ireland.

“He’s just a wonderful man. Some of the things he’s done in Gaelic football, some of the lives he’s touched, some of the careers he’s been involved in, he’s a very special man. It’s a very fitting tribute that he got up them steps.

“For me, if someone said ‘you won an All-Ireland title’, I’d think ‘Mickey Moran managed a club to an All-Ireland title’. That’s where I am in my thinking. It’s him first. For us as players, we were more happy for him today than ourselves.

“And he’ll be the complete opposite, he wouldn’t want to come up them steps, he’s not into that. But there was no way he wasn’t coming up. That’s why we never lifted it until he came up.”

You’re going down the coaching line yourself, what’s the single biggest thing you learned from him?

“If my players were able to think of me the exact same way that players think of Mickey Moran, you’d be doing something right. Yes it’s about winning and things like that, but it’s much deeper than that with him.

“He’s the kind of manager players just adore, and whenever you love your manager, you’ll go to places you never would have gone before. It’s how simple he keeps things. It’s not blood and thunder all the time, probably not until half-time today.

“People would say is he a manager, is he a coach, but he’s just everything rolled into one. He’s a special man.”

What does it mean for you to win the All-Ireland at this stage of your career?

“Time was running out, like. I knew that myself. To have my wee boys running on the field after it and the smiles on their faces… It’s the box done. You can lie in bed tonight and know that all the suffering, all the heartbreak, you can just lie and smile tonight.

“You can go tomorrow and just be satisfied. Because we never were, never in our whole life. Even after Down championships, you had Ulster and then you got beat. I’m playing 20 years and at the end of every year, there’s heartbreak.

“There’s no heartbreak tomorrow. There’s only a smile tomorrow morning because there’s no next day out. We’ve done it. We’ve reached the Holy Grail.”

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