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St. Brigid’s cross Rangers for the third time

February 11, 2013

Roscommon and Connacht champions St Brigid’s will cross swords with reigning Ulster and All –Ireland champions Crossmaglen Rangers for the third time when the sides meet on Saturday Feb 16 at 2pm in Mullingar.

It was at Saturday’s venue Cusack Park back in Feb 19 2007 when the teams first met when a Mickey McNamee goal separated them at the final whistle 1-11 to 0-11. Four years later in the final at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day Cross completed the double over the Connacht champions winning 2-11 to 1-11. Only a kick-of the ball between the two in their previous clashes and there is nothing to suggest that a repeat is on the cards for the third time.

Once through to their third Armagh final in a row Cross became a new breed of animal from their stuttering stop start previous championship performances in reaching the final. Pearse Og, the only team to beat them in the Armagh championship in the last 17 years were the final opponents but a two goal salvo from Jamie Clarke and a third from Tony Kernan put the City side away 3-9 to 0-11. With the first hurdle in the defence of their triple crown safely tucked away Cross faced Donegal champions St Eunan’s to commence their Ulster campaign. Goals from Aaron Kernan, Kyle Carragher and Paul Grant eased Rangers to a 3-11 to 1-7 win and a place in the semi-final. Rangers nemesis Tyrone champions Errigal Ciaran were next up but goals from  team captain David McKenna and Jamie Clarke put the bogey to rest 2-10 to 0-10 and set up a  showdown with first time finalists Down champions Kilcoo.

A third Ulster title in a row for Crossmaglen Rangers was overshadowed by proven racism allegations against Kilcoo players and a supporter. This outrageous occurrence took the gloss off what was at first a glittering performance from the champions that turned into a dogfight in the end as they recovered with 13 men to see off a stirring Kilcoo fightback. Semi-final goal hero of 2007 Mickey McNamee will have to sit out Saturday’s match following his red card against Kilcoo.

St. Brigid’s, the current kingpins of Roscommon football underlined this with their third championship in a row following a Frankie Dolan show as he grabbed 2-4 in a 2-8 to 0-9 win over Padraig Pearses. This was the Kiltoom and Cam outfits second hat-trick of county titles having won in 2005/06/07 and set them on the road in search of another treble of Connacht titles.  A 15 point win over Leitrim champions Melvin Gaels with goals from Gearoid Cunniffe and Eddie Egan  in their 2-19 to 0-10 victory. An away trip to Pearse Park against former All-Ireland champions was negotiated with no goals scored or conceded as they beat the Galway outfit 0-15 to 0-8 to set up a most unusual all Roscommon Connacht final. Brigid’s opponents were Ballaghaderreen which is in Co Roscommon but they play their football across the border in Mayo. At McHale Park, Castlebar St. Brigid’s became only the second ever team to achieve the feat of three in a row (Clan Na Gael, Roscommon won six in a row in the 80’s) with a 1-12 to 0-6 win and the goalscorer was Senan Kilbride.

New management add spice and changes to contest

The Roscommon side have shown their mettle and desire to become the first team from the county to win the All-Ireland club by re-grouping after the painful All-Ireland semi-final defeat to near neighbours Garrycastle of Westmeath 1-11 to 1-9. That defeat saw Kiltoom man Noel O’Brien relinquished control of team affairs. It is under the guidance of new management that St Brigid’s are back on the trail of All-Ireland glory managed by former Mayo star Kevin McStay. The former All-Star and The Sunday Game pundit immediately enlisted the help of fellow club and county player Liam McHale, his brother-in-law. All-Star McHale featured on the Ballina Stephenites team beaten in the 1999 All-Ireland final 0-9 to 0-8. Liam, a noted basketball player, takes the physical side of training with St Brigid’s with the Mayo duo joined by Benny O’Brien, who is currently a selector with the Offaly U21 football team.

The new management team met with instant success as McStay picked up his second Roscommon title having managed Roscommon Gaels to glory in 2004. McStay leading St Brigid’s to a fourth Connacht title meant something special to players Niall Grehan, Frankie Dolan, Senan Kilbride and Karol Mannion – the only four players to have started in the club’s four Connacht triumphs. Brigid’s also lost two Connacht finals in 2005 (to Salthill) and 2007 ironically to Ballina Stephenites. The new management’s previous history with Crossmaglen Rangers coupled with that of their new charges adds a little more spice to an already eagerly awaited contest.

The Roscommon champions under their new regime showed 6 changes on their team that won the Connacht title from the team that started the 2011 All-Ireland against Cross. Goalkeeper Philip Martin, defenders Robbie Kelly and David Sheehy along with forwards Cathal and Conor McHugh and David Nolan were replaced in that final by Shane Curran (keeper), Ronan Stack, Damien Kelleher, Johnny Murray, Garvan Dolan and Richard Blaine. This shows that management were not going to rest on the previous team’s laurels and press ahead with their own style of play in a bid to become their first Roscommon team to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup.

Champions Crossmaglen have undergone a few changes since the teams last met with defenders Danny O’Callaghan (back in contention), Stephen Finnegan and forward Francis Hanratty absent replaced by Paul Hughes and Martin Aherne in defence and Kyle Carragher in attack.

Veterans to the fore

For both teams it has been the case that it is their veterans who have been keeping them ticking over on the scoreboard. St Brigid’s have scored 3-46 in their 3 Connacht outings with 1-28 coming from vastly experienced full forward duo Frankie Dolan (0-16) and Senan Kilbride (1-12).

While Liam McHale patrols the sidelines on Saturday he will be looking on with envy as two players who played against him in the Ballina defeat Paul Hearty and Oisin McConville although laden down with medals will be as keen and hungry as anyone to lead their team to more glory. Oisin is Rangers top scorer with 1-11 from 3 Ulster outings.

While the veterans may be to the fore when it comes to scoring it is the help that they have been getting from all over the field that keeps the success ratio for both teams ticking over into domination in their respective championships. The big question facing both camps is will they be tempted to make changes.

The champions main concern surrounds the well being of full back Paul Kernan who came off in the Ulster final with a recurrence of a shoulder injury that has plagued him since injury against St Gall’s in 2011. Paul was replaced in that Kilcoo game by Danny O’Callaghan who had missed out on the 2012 championship campaign because he was in Australia. Danny, the regular centre-back on the two previous All-Ireland winning teams, is pushing hard to get his starting berth back. Paul’s eldest brother Stephen a talisman in attack came off early in the Ulster final but is expected to be fit to resume his centre forward duties.

To include or not include the two McHugh’s , Cathal and Conor in the forwards from the off is the poser for Brigid’s. With folk hero Frankie Dolan recovering from a bout of pneumonia will they gamble with him from the off or use him as an impact sub later if required. McStay, an experienced campaigner both on and off the field, will make the right calls and will have his homework done on the Rangers.

Cross being Cross though, having your homework done, does not mean that you will pass the exam. Crossmaglen Rangers have proven to be the best club side ever for a reason- they produce proven matchwinners from all over the field and often the unlikeliest of sources. Brigid’s neighbours Garrycastle found out in the All-Ireland replay who Franny Hanratty was all too late when he had scored 2 goals against them. Ominous for all concerned Rangers have a few more not so household names in reserve who are very close to the starting 15. It is this endless stream of young talent that keeps the pressure on the men in possession of the jersey that keeps Cross a step ahead of the rest. Success breeds success as St Brigid’s themselves can rightly testify too.

Numerous Key Encounters

Given the pedigree of the two teams it is easy to speculate that they will be numerous key encounters in all sectors of the field which could have a big factor in determining the outcome. Who will get the respective man marking duties on Dolan & Kilbride at one end and Clarke & McConville at the opposite end?  How will the midfield pairings match –up? Will Brigid’s try to curb the influence of Aaron Kernan? These are but a few of the mouth-watering prospects that await us in what from the outset will be a very tactical affair.

As far as man marking is concerned Cross have two of the best in the business in Paul McKeown and James Morgan. The duo have faced some of the best forwards in the country with height, weight advantage, reputations not phasing this duo, who can mix it and play ball whichever style of play you want to adopt. Will Ronan Stack and Johnny Murray prove as effective in curtailing Jamie and Oisin. Young Paul Hughes at corner back in his debut championship season has been a revelation and has weighed in with 2 points for good measure. The versatile Martin Aherne has been used as a half back but is equally at home in the half forward line. Martin took over from Stephen Finnegan who is currently in the Armagh squad but off the Cross panel. Aherne’s attacking instincts along with those of fellow wing back Aaron Kernan have contributed greatly to the Rangers cause. Aaron in particular is the key link between midfield and attack and his presence on the ball spells danger for any team.

The midfield area is always critical and on Saturday there should be a tremendous battle for possession in this sector. Rangers Captain David McKenna and midfield powerhouse Johnny Hanratty will have their hands full up against the experienced duo of Karol Mannion and Ian Kilbride. The Rangers skipper has been known to drop back into defence when the pressure comes on while his partner puts in a full shift bursting forward with the same intensity be it the first or last minute. Over the course of the hour the Cross boys are very rarely outplayed.

Difference between the teams

For me the difference between Saturday’s opponents lies in their respective forward lines and what they can spring from the bench. Both teams have had 13 different scorers to get to this stage of the competition but Cross have hit the onion bag 8 times as opposed to 3 for Brigid’s. Will the Brigid’s defence, still to concede a goal since winning the Roscommon title, be able to keep 41 year -old Sean “cake” Curran’s goal intact for the fourth game in a row? I don’t think so as the champions have had 7 different goalscorers in their last 3 games.

The other 2 Kernan brothers Stephen and Tony are joined in the half forward line by Kyle Carragher who has really blossomed since holding down a regular place on the team. While Stephen pulls the strings when it comes to a range of passes and vision the unselfish workload of carrying and fetching from brother Tony often goes un-noticed. With Kyle adopting the same attitude as Tony the ground covered by both as offensive and defensive players is staggering. The Rangers full forward line is viewed by many as their marquis line mainly because of their sheer potency on the scoreboard. Oisin McConville must have inherited some blood not just the same Christian name of the fabled folklore hero of Tir Na nOg fame as he has certainly turned back the clock with an evergreen display of point taking in this current campaign. When Kilcoo were pressing in the Ulster final it was Oisin, the most decorated club footballer of all time, who had the presence of mind to slip in behind the defence unmarked, receive the ball and set up Kyle Brennan for a match winning goal.

If Cross were looking to find an heir to McConville’s throne he already exists in the opposite corner in Jamie Clarke.  Not a renowned free taker Clarke has all the silky ball skills, goal scoring ability and off the ball movement which has already established him as a club and county favourite. Always dangerous he cannot be left alone for a minute or he will punish you by ghosting in to create a goal when nothing looks on. With defenders on constant Clarke alert it enables his team mates to notch up the scores as can be seen by his 1-1 in a Rangers total of 8-30. Number 14 Aaron Cunningham bagged the Ulster final headlines through no fault of his own for all the wrong reasons. The very talented Aaron is playing a team part operating out of this position as he is probably more suited to a half forward spot. Aaron will be very keen to grab the headlines this week for all the right reasons via a Man of the Match winning performance. Oisin (0-6), Jamie (1-3) Aaron (1-0) out of 2-11 against Brigid’s the last day out. Stack, Domican and Murray in the full back line will have their work cut out to keep the Rangers trio at bay.

Brigid’s in their last two meetings with Cross matched them in most departments except the key one the scoreboard. The excellent Senan Kilbride finished the final versus Cross with 0-8 out of 1-11. It was Frankie Dolan with 0-7 out of 0-11 who top scored in their semi-final loss to Cross where the Rangers full forward line of Mickey McNamee (1-1), Johnny Hanratty (0-2), Oisin McConville (0-5) bagged 1-8 out of 1-11. Richard Blaine, Eoin Sheehy, Eddie Egan, Garvan Dolan and Gearoid Cunniffe will have to step up to the plate and register with regularity with scores on the board if it is going to be St Brigid’s day.

Another plus for the champions is that they carry a very strong substitutes bench. Brendan McKeown, Ronan Finnegan, Garvan Carragher, Conor ONeill,  Callum Cumiskey, Paul Grant, Mel Boyce and Kyle Brennan have all experienced big time action and will not be found wanting if called into action.

Once again the outcome of this semi rests with the performances of the respective full back lines. Their performances have decided the last two meetings between these two evenly matched teams as the scoring facts bear out. One of the key facts about Saturday’s encounter is the miles on the clock put up by both teams over the last decade. A lot more miles in the legs of the challenger’s age wise with a few of them eying this as the last throw of the dice in search of that elusive first title. Crossmaglen Rangers with all their successes are still out for setting more records with a first by any team of 3 All-Ireland Club titles in a row their aim. Achieving this will bring them level with Nemo Rangers (Cork) at the top of the all- time winners list with 7 each.

When Laois official Maurice Deegan,(who was in charge of the Mayo v Donegal All-Ireland last September) blows the final whistle on Saturday Crossmaglen Rangers will have taken the cream off  the Brigid’s “curran cake”  for the third time.

• How Crossmaglen Rangers got there!

Crossmaglen Rangers

Ulster Club SFC final

At The Athletic Grounds

Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 3-9

Kilcoo (Down) 1-9

semi-final

At Clones

Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 2-10

Errigal Ciaran (Tyrone) 0-10

Ulster Club SFC quarter-final

At The Athletic Grounds

Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 3-11

St Eunan’s (Donegal) 1-7

Scorers-O McConvillle (1-11), A Kernan (2-4), D McKenna (1-2), K Carragher (1-1), J Clarke (1-1), S Kernan (0-3), T Kernan (0-3), P Grant (1-0), K Brennan (1-0), P Hughes (0-2), M Aherne (0-1), A Cunningham (0-1), C Cumiskey (0-1)

FOR ; 8-30 AGN; 2-26

• How St. Brigid’s got there!

St Brigid’s

Connacht Club SFC final

At Castlebar

St Brigid’s (Roscommon) 1-12

Ballaghaderreen (Mayo) 0-6

Connacht Club SFC semi-final

At Pearse Stadium

St Brigid’s (Roscommon) 0-15

Salthill-Knocknacarra (Galway) 0-8

Connacht Club SFC preliminary round

At Kiltoom

St Brigid’s (Roscommon) 2-19

Melvin Gaels (Leitrim) 0-10

Scorers- F Dolan (0-16), S Kilbride (1-12), E Sheehy (0-4), E Egan (1-1), G Cunniffe (1-0), N Grehan (0-2), I Kilbride (0-2), R Blaine (0-2), D Dolan (0-2), D Kelleher (0-2), D Donnelly (0-1), G Dolan (0-1), A McInerney (0-1)

FOR; 3-46 AGN; 0-24

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