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Parochialism Prevails

October 14, 2013

• Armagh Senior Football Championship Final – Crossmaglen Rangers v St. Patrick’s, Cullyhanna

• Armagh Minor Football Championship Final – Silverbridge v Dromintee

The very essence of what is the lifeblood of the GAA, Parochial rivalry, will break new ground on Sunday Oct 20th at the Athletic Grounds when the parishes of Upper and Lower Creggan will clash for the first time in what will be 111th Armagh Senior Football Final.

The contrast in fortunes for the two finalists is so vast in terms of success, that statistically it should be declared a no-contest, but to all involved and beyond it has captured the minds and imagination like no other Armagh final in recent years. Will it be feisty? Will it be one-sided in favour of the champions? Will the challengers rise or die in their first ever senior final appearance?  Will the fact that it is Crossmaglen Rangers who provide the opposition for debutants St Patrick’s, Cullyhanna dilute the occasion and steer them to glory beyond their wildest dreams, as they celebrate 125 years in existence with a Gala Dinner on Nov 2?

St Pat’s, have 3 Armagh Intermediate titles to their credit 1979, 1988 and 2008 A good omen for them is that like Sunday’s final they triumphed over South Armagh opponents Mullaghbawn twice and Culloville in the last of their Senior county successes. Opponents Cross holds the National record for Senior Football County titles with 40 and will be appearing in their 57th Armagh final on Sunday hoping to complete a four-in-a-row winning sequence.

Wafting in the air of expectancy surrounding this unique final pairing is a thought that Parochialism might be replaced by Tribalism, with the survival of the fittest in all aspects of the GAA, the good, the bad and the ugly on display at the Athletic Grounds which should house its biggest final crowd for a very long time

NEW MANAGERS FOR BOTH CAMPS

Former Tyrone player Jody Gormley who had spells with Down, Antrim, Longstone and Abbey CBS where he teaches, took over St Pat’s at the beginning of the year. While the general style of play from the Pat’s has not changed under the new manager, he has instilled a vital ingredient into them-the game is not over until the final whistle. This belief was never more evident in the current championship in their wins over Whitecross and Ballymacnab, where they produced match-winning comebacks inside the last 5 minutes, clawing back substantial leads into the bargain. Also Jody has used and juggled the players available to him very well, using his bench to very good effect, none more so than in the semi-final where his substitutions transformed the match in his team’s favour.

When Tony McEntee and Gareth O Neill vacated the managers role at Cross they left behind a legacy of two All-Ireland titles, 3 Ulsters and 3 Armaghs to their name leaving a very hard act to follow. Armagh’s and Rangers most successful manager Joe Kernan, who began the run of 16 Armagh titles in 17 years since 1996, stepped back into the hot seat. Back in charge of a new talented young squad laden with some vastly experienced players Joe did not envisage having to do without the services of his own son Paul, James Morgan, Ronan Finnegan, David McKenna, Jamie Clarke and the retired Oisin McConville from the team that lost the All-Ireland semi-final to St Brigid’s (Roscommon) last February thus far in the Armagh championship. Such has been the phenomenal rate of success for Crossmaglen Rangers for the last 18 years Joe has just met the bottom line of supporters expectancy-reaching the County Final.

Big Joe has a previous with St Pat’s in the championship- it was the opening game of the 1997 campaign with Cross beginning a successful defence of their Armagh, Ulster and All-Ireland titles in the Athletic Grounds on foot of a flattering 2-11 to 1-6 victory as Cathal Short and Michael McShane provided the winner’s goals. Sixteen years on, Cross goalkeeper that day Paul Hearty will again be between the sticks hoping to become the most decorated Ranger of all time by picking up his seventeenth Armagh Senior title.

MOST RECENT MEETING

While Joe and Paul make a far back link, the current squads had a more recent meeting in 2010 that needed a replay for the outcome to be resolved. At Silverbridge in the penultimate hurdle the teams played out a pulsating 1-14 to 2-11 draw with the tale of 2 red cards providing two of the many talking points. Ahead 1-9 to 0-7 at the short whistle Rangers were rocked by a brace of goals inside 3 minutes of the restart from Robbie Tasker. A point down Cross went a man down as Jamie Clarke got a straight red but minutes later numerical equality was restored as Tasker, with 2-4 under his belt, got his marching orders. The sides traded points with Ciaran McKeever landing the sixth and most telling of equalisers which brought a replay a week later. Tasker was available for the replay as Clarke began an 8 week suspension. The replay was a first half damp squib which was scoreless for 18 minutes with Rangers first score a David McKenna goal helping Cross lead 1-2 to 0-3 at half-time. In a nip and tuck second half Rangers edged two points ahead very late on in the half only for Tasker to grab the last score of the game from a free, his first of the afternoon after being well shackled by James Morgan.

With an impressive 1-7 to his credit in victory over Ballymacnab, Robbie Tasker is once again grabbing the headlines and the plaudits. With Morgan on the injured list following a car accident it will be interesting to see who, if anybody will be assigned the man marking job for the final.

CHANGED TEAMS

Since that last meeting 3 years ago both sides have introduced a few new players to their starting teams. The Pat’s team beaten in last year’s semi-final by Pearse Og showed 6 changes for Gormley’s outfit that took the field against Ballymacnab a fortnight ago. Goalkeeper Deaglan McArdle, corner-back Eoin McArdle, half-back Niall McShane, forwards Eugene Casey, Kieran Hoey and Tony Donnelly have been replaced by Conor O Neill, Sean Connell, Liam O Hare, Robbie Tasker, Aidan Nugent who all started the recent semi-final victory.

The Pat’s manager has had to deal with a lot of injuries, absentees and suspension over the course of his 3 championship victories. The team which started the championship campaign with a 2-7 to 1-8 win over Whitecross bore 4 changes from the ‘Nab starting 15 which shows the depth of the panel of players available. The Tyrone native has also experimented with using players in different positions and is certainly not afraid to shuffle the pack depending on who the opponents are.

Colm Hoey came on as a substitute in the last game despite being named to start. Colm has been troubled by a hamstring injury all year which might be an injury worry for team captain Paudie McCreesh who departed the semi-final in the first half after scoring a point. Pearse Casey back after injury was a ready replacement for Hoey. The return of Liam O Hare has been a big boost for the Pat’s as he offers them a lot in terms of attacking options as both a scorer and tireless worker. The impact that the back from suspension Eugene Casey made to the second half comeback against Ballymacnab cannot be undervalued. Besides winning a lot of primary possession, which his team had been deprived of, Eugene weighed in with two very valuable points, his second to level the scores in the final minute.

Stephen Finnegan, Garvan Carragher, Kyle Brennan and Callum Cumiskey are the quartet of Cross players Joe has drafted in to replace his missing players. Joe who likes to give his players game time to develop, fielded the same starting teams in the defeats of Pearse Og and Maghery. Champions Cross were far from their best in both of those wins but still comfortably accounted for what would be regarded as the top two teams in the County at present. Rangers have graphed a familiar pattern since 1996 showing a steady improvement with every championship round and have become so accustomed it has become second nature to them.

A LOT OF PROMISE

The novelty of this unique final pairing should not be lost in the fact that it is a real David v Goliath encounter. Recent first time finalists have fared very poorly against Cross Ballymacnab were beaten 2-22 to 0-3 and newly crowned Intermediate champions Madden were defeated 2-16 to 0-9 when the occasion proved too much for both of them.

Make no bones about it this is the biggest St Patrick’s game ever, in their illustrious 125 years of existence. Sure they are sprinkled with plenty of inter-county experience from underage up the senior and they have performed on the big days out with distinction. Collectively, they now carry the hopes of the Parish up against their neighbours who just happen to be basking in the acclimation of being the best club side ever given their tremendous consistency and trophy haul.

Past glories will all be forgotten with future history to be written once the ball is thrown-in by Killeavy Referee Stephen McKinley at 5-30 next Sunday. The game holds a lot of promise as it has the capabilities of producing a repeat of their epic draw, is littered with outstanding players, some with short fuses and panache for the reckless, the rival supporters will bring their own atmosphere to the occasion.

Champions Cross who have only lost one final in the last 33 they have contested at Senior level will also be feeling the pressure because of who is providing the opposition. Look what Cross had to go on and do after Mullaghbawn won Ulster in 1995. A County Final defeat at the hands of St Patrick’s would be a hard one for Cross to live down

The movement of the Grugan brothers Rory and Jack had the Pat’s defence at sixes and sevens in the first half. Rangers sextet of attackers Aaron Cunningham, captain Tony Kernan, Martin Aherne, the two Kyle’s Brennan and Carragher and Callunm Cumiskey all have pace to burn making it a very uncomfortable afternoon for the Pat’s defenders whatever formation Jody decides to go with. The difference this time is that Cross will attack with pace for the full duration of the match with respite. To counteract the Rangers pace Pats have the edge on physicality and how they go about using this could give them the edge needed to stay with the champions.

Most times every team gets a period of dominance in a game the champions key is that they make theirs count big time whereas their opponents fail to punish them when they are in the ascendency. This does not happen by chance as the Rangers work rate when not in possession of the ball is phenomenal.  Pat’s cannot afford to allow Cross dominate them like Whitecross and Ballymacnab as they are too streetwise and too seasoned campaigners to allow them a way back into the game. For victory the underdogs will have to go at full tilt for the duration.

Even though David McKenna has returned to the Cross panel he is unlikely to start the final as Joe will probably give a vote of confidence to the 15 who started the previous two championship outings.. Rangers adept at cutting down the open spaces will be keen to cut the supply to forward catalyst Tasker who is a proven match winner. The ever improving Paul Hughes ay be given the man marking job on Robbie as full back Paul McKeown will have his hands full with Malachy Mackin. Was the long ball route to Mal successful in the semi Yes and No. It did produce a few scores and a few break balls but it was not until Pat’s ran at the ‘Nab defence which gave them the avenue to go on to win the match.

Johnny Hanratty and Stephen Kernan have worked tirelessly at midfield for the champions coming out on top in that sector against both the Og’s and Maghery. Ciaran McKeever and Barry McConville never functioned at midfield against the ‘Nab. It will be interesting to see if McKeever will be given a defensive, midfield or attacking role in the final as he was a major influence from centre half back when the teams drew at Silverbridge.

No matter how it looks on paper statistics never win games and you always have a chance particularly in a final. The forte for the underdogs as always is that they have nothing to lose and all to gain. St Pat’s will have no fear of the champions as they have always fared well against them in the league and have played well in their three previous championship meetings. This is a final though and how will the challengers handle or prepare for the occasion will be key to their performance.

Cross hold all the aces, one in particular, pace to trouble a Pat’s defence that looks lacking in a bit of speed. The underdogs will have to cut out the swift direct route Cross use to goal and more importantly grab at least a 50/50 share of loose ball to stay in contention. Traditionally Crossmaglen Rangers are fast starters and can have you blown out of the water by the time the first quarter is over, which Pat’s will be well aware of. But can they prevent this from happening? They will need to if they are to make a game of it. There is something about this matchup-probably the local rivalry and bragging rights that will go with it- or the sense of timing with the Pat’s celebrating 125 years-which keeps the inner brain harbouring thoughts of a huge upset.

Pat’s and everyone knows for this to happen they will need to produce their best ever performance from 1 to 20 and still hope that the champions will have an off day. The reality though is that as always Cross carry too much as a collective unit to slip up in Armagh. Rangers have shown that they are not about individual performances but how the team fares and plays. You think that you hold their dangermen but someone else turns in a match winning performance. They slip in players off the bench and the system and style of play is un-interrupted. Cross provide and have perfected the blueprint to success-we play it our way- if you are good enough on the day come and beat us. I don’t think that St Pat’s are good enough to produce a fairytale ending to their first final and will come up that bit short at the long whistle. Tony Kernan will follow in the footsteps of brother Aaron and Stephen in holding aloft the Gerry Fegan Cup as Cross march on in search of an elusive fourth successive Ulster title.

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