Another football feast is expected
The telling difference 12 months on in this Armagh Senior Football Final repeat is that underdogs Ballymacnab are still seeking to win their first title and if achieved, they deny champions Crossmaglen Rangers a 45th crown. Patrons will be hoping for good weather so we can have a repeat of the excellent fare served up by both sides in the best Armagh final for years.
Rank outsiders Ballymacnab commanded an early 5-point lead last year but Cross displayed unerring accuracy as they fired over 22 points from play to win their first title in 3 years 0-24 to 1-15. Credit to losers Ballymacnab who had a right go, scoring 1-12 themselves from play, but following a brilliant opening half the Round Towers lost their way as Rangers outgunned them 0-13 to 0-4 in the second half.
How they got there
Both teams have already met in the 2019 championship in their final group game. The match was just a Group winning decider as both had won their first two matches, but the psychological advantage went to Cross in a high scoring encounter courtesy of a 3-15 to 2-12 victory as a follow up to their 2 League wins over the Round Towers.
Following an indifferent injury ravaged League campaign from Cross a lot of attention was focused on their opening championship match away to Clann Eireann. The champions threw the gauntlet down to their 15 challengers with an emphatic display as they cruised to an 18-point win 3-18 to 0-9 and a clear indication that they are still the team to beat in Armagh. Having raced into a commanding lead away to Sarsfields the second half concession of 3 goals will be a worry as Cross prevailed 2-18 to 3-11 before seeing off the ‘Nab to top the group and straight into the quarter-finals.
A local derby with Silverbridge was eagerly awaited as the Fords Cross outfit had trimmed Cross in the League. The damp squib witnessed was in keeping with the weather as Cross strolled into the semis with ease 1-15 to 0-7. The semi-final meeting with League Champions Maghery, who had won both League matches between the two with ease, was played in atrocious conditions in the Athletic Grounds. The game was the second part of a double header, that had to wait for extra-time in the opening semi and then survive a pitch inspection. Once again Cross were not seriously tested (except physically) as it took Maghery 50 minutes to get their first score from play. Maghery failed to respond to a 30 second goal followed by a couple of points start for Cross who were back in the final on foot of a 2-9 to 0-8 win.
By the time Ballymacnab travelled to Cross for their third Championship group game wins over Sarsfields 2-17 to 2-8 followed by a second tally of 2-17 as they saw off the 0-10 challenge of Clann Eireann. Still there will be a worry for the ‘Nab management that Cross opened up a 10-point lead in that game and even more worrying is that their defence has conceded 8 goals to Cross in their 3 matches this year.
Ballymacnab, unlike Cross were really put through the ringer and under the cosh over the course of their 3 knock-out Championship games. It did not help the ‘Nab that all 3 games happened to be local derbies which brought its own additional pressure. To reach the quarter-finals they eked out a one-point win 1-10 to 0-12 victory over Armagh Harps only to find themselves up against the other Armagh City steam Pearse Og. A second half surge saw them through to the last 4 2-12 to 0-10 set up the biggest derby game of all with parish rivals Granemore. The opening match on the double header bill was by far and away miles ahead of the second instalment as both teams gave their all in a pulsating encounter that defied the wet, slippy playing conditions. Ballymacnab looked home and hosted 5 points clear with as many minutes left but Granemore, as it had done throughout the championship, once again finished strong to snatch a draw to force extra-time. With both teams giving their all, in stamina sapping heavy underfoot conditions, Granemore got nabbed as their opponents found that bit extra to outscore them 5-1 and book back to back County Final appearances.
Both finalists have changed teams
Judging by the teams selected by the finalists from their last semi-final outings there will be several changes in personnel to the starting line-up from the sides that began the final 12 months ago.
Champions Cross showed 5 changes in the win over Maghery from the team which started last year’s final. Goalkeeper Jamie McEvoy, defender James Morgan and forwards Paudi Stuttard, Mickey McNamee and Johnny Hanratty were the players to miss out. Tiernan McConville between the sticks has been more than an adequate replacement for Jamie McEvoy who has moved away from Cross
Carlow Senior player and Kerry native Chris Crowley has come into the defence as more than an able replacement for the injured Paul McKeown. Alan Farrelly has moved to midfield to partner Stephen Morris and his place at the back has gone to Callum Cumiskey who has been very impressive at number 6 all year. Callum tasted some action as a used sub in the final last year
The forward trio of replacements emphasizes the further infusion of new young blood into the Cross set-up. Cian McConville who weighed in with 2 points when coming on as a sub 12 months ago has since established himself as a regular starter. Another player introduced very late on 12 months ago is Mel Boyce who has gone on to nail down the number 11 jersey. Colin O Connor is another youngster who has made the starting 15 as a regular.
Five possible changes ahead of Sunday’s final means only one thing, that Rangers Management trio of Kieran Donnelly, Miceal Moley and Francis Fitzpatrick have some serious experienced bench and more new talent to call upon if things are not going their way.
Former Monaghan Minor manager Bernie Murray will be delighted that his Ballymacnab players have another chance at winning a first Gerry Fegan Cup following their gallant but unsuccessful attempt last year. Bernie will be more than pleased with what his team has shown to reach the final as their fitness, commitment and desire for championship glory was all to the fore during their last three local derby matches. After coming on as a sub in the decider as goalkeeper Conor McGivern has earned his stripes back as
number one netminder replacing Sean Hughes. From their semi-final first 15 against Granemore 3 players who started the final Paudi Crilly, Paul Meegan and Kieran Hughes were also absent for the ‘Nab. Sean Lynch, Cormac Gribben and Brian McCone have filled the vacant positions on the team.
Hopefully the weather will leave us with a good dry firm sod for Sunday’s eagerly awaited contest between two out and out footballing sides. Spectators will be hoping to be treated to another terrific open game of football but it might be too much to expect the quality of 12 months ago when 35 of the 40 scores recorded came from open play.
Cross will be very much on guard to deny their opponents the fast start they enjoyed last year especially affording Jack Grugan the time and space that he exploited with aplomb in the opening half twelve months ago. The challengers will know that they will have to repeat their opening half exploits for the full 60 minutes on Sunday if they are to cause the big upset and plunder their first Senior Championship.
For me the telling tale from their previous final is that Cross had 9 different players on the scoresheet as opposed to 5 for the ‘Nab. Also, the champions have found the onion bag in all their championship outings to date and have already knocked up 8 goals in their 3 games against Ballymacnab.
Ballymacnab will once again make life extremely difficult for the champions but at the final whistle the Cup will be making the familiar journey back to Crossmaglen. To date in the Armagh championship Cross have not been extended but as they face their toughest hurdle they, above all, will know that they will have to improve to pass the Ballymacnab test.
Path to the final
Crossmaglen Rangers 3-18 Clann Eireann 0-09
Crossmaglen Rangers 2-18 Sarsfields 3-11
Crossmaglen Rangers 3-15 Ballymacnab 2-12
Crossmaglen Rangers 1-15 Silverbridge Harps 0-07
Crossmaglen Rangers 2-09 Maghery 0-08
Played 5 Won 5 Lost 0 – For 11-75 Against 5-47
Ballymacnab Round Towers
Ballymacnab 2-17 Sarsfields 2-08
Ballymacnab 2-17 Clann Eireann 0-10
Ballymacnab 2-12 Crossmaglen Rangers 3-15
Ballymacnab 1-10 Armagh Harps 0-12
Ballymacnab 2-12 Pearse Og 0-10
Ballymacnab 0-16 Granemore 0-12 aet
Played 6 Won 5 Lost 1 – For 12-90 Against 5-67