No Joy for Kilcoo

October 28, 2013

Ulster Club – Kilcoo (Down) v Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh)

Kilcoo will be hoping that the rhyme associated with their nickname “The Magpies” –one for sorrow two for joy- holds true next Sunday as they try to dethrone the reigning Ulster champions Crossmaglen Rangers at the second attempt. Kilcoo retained their Down title with a hard fought 0-9 to 0-7 victory over a fancied Burren whilst Crossmaglen Rangers dismissed the challenge of near neighbours and first time finalists St Patrick’s 0-17 to 0-8.

The Ulster final meeting between the Armagh and Down champions on Dec 2 2012 captured national headlines as two Kilcoo players were accused of Racist remarks towards Rangers Aaron Cunningham. An investigation following the match found that the Brannigan brothers, Aidan and Darryl, racially abused Aaron Cunningham during the match.  Subsequently, Aidan Brannigan was suspended for six months while Darryl Brannigan was handed a four month ban.  Many slammed these suspensions as being too lenient.  However, in an appeal heard by the Ulster Hearing Committee, the bans were overturned with Darryl’s completely rescinded and Aidan’s reduced to four months. A member of the Kilcoo Eoin Roe’s club was also found to have racially abused Aaron Cunningham. Having been identified, he has been debarred from membership for life.

Hopefully, this matter will not take centre stage in the build- up to what looks like a very intriguing contest at Pairc Esler as the challengers try to stop their opponents bid for the elusive 4 in a row in Ulster. Crossmaglen Rangers have won six of their ten Ulster crown in the last seven years, with the loss in Armagh in 2009 to Pearse Og halting their first bid for an Ulster quartet on the bounce.

At the Athletic Grounds 11 months ago Kilcoo were blitzed in the opening half by the champions, who led 2-6 to 0-3 at the short whistle, as an Oisin McConville penalty followed by an Aaron Kernan goal 40 seconds later, both inside the opening 5 minutes, unravelled the Kilcoo challenge as they trailed by a massive 11 points. Rangers stepped off the gas and Kilcoo prospered. Anthony Devlin goaled 11 minutes into the second half immediately followed by a red card for Cross and “the Magpies” looked set to steal the glory. A man down, the champions re-grouped and points from Martin Aherne and Oisin McConville put paid to the comeback. A last minute second yellow reduced Cross to 13 players but as Kilcoo poured forward Oisin stayed forward, received the ball to set up Kyle Brennan for a goal as Cross triumphed 3-9 to 1-9.

The big plus this time round from a Kilcoo point of view is that the champions will be minus defenders Paul Kernan and James Morgan and forwards Jamie Clarke and Oisin McConville from the team that started the final last year. The Kilcoo team that started the Down final against Burren showed only one change from the side that began against Cross, Niall McEvoy in for Donal Kane. There are very few clubs in the country that could start a championship season with a 1/3 of the team that played in an All-Ireland semi-final 7 months previous and still win their county with relative ease, and all this under a new manager.

Twenty years after first taking the Crossmaglen reins Joe Kernan is back in charge of the dynasty he created. Two All-Ireland’s and a hat-trick of successes in Ulster and Armagh by his predecessors Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill did not stop Joe from taking on a more arduous task than the one back in 1993. Dealt a blow with the loss of 5 players, Joe soldiered on undaunted, going back to the base of his success story back in 1995 –having faith in his youthful prodigies. The average age of Joe’s County final 15 is just 25 with 17 championship medal winner Paul Hearty the eldest at 35 years of age. The return of defender Stephen Finnegan was a boost but it was the more game time given to another defender Garvan Carragher and full forwards Kyle Carragher, Kyle Brennan and Callum Cumiskey that kept Cross as the Kingpins of the Orchard County. Pearse Og, who ended Rangers Armagh dominance were the first hurdle Cross had to overcome and they were swept aside 2-11 to 0-7. Next up was a semi-final date with league champions Maghery, with the Loughshore men going down 0-15 to 1-9 which set up a historic all Creggan Parish final against first time finalists St Patrick’s who were defeated 0-17 to 0-8. An average of  0-16 for their three championship outings has shown the country that the Rangers are still a very potent attacking force even without the retired Oisin McConville and the stateside Jamie Clarke.

Defending champions Kilcoo were underdogs going into the Down final against high flying high scoring Burren. The champions held their opponents to just one point from play from their star forwards which was key to their victory. A point down with a minute left, Kilcoo took full advantage of a second yellow for Burren as they landed 3 late points for a 0-9 to 0-7 victory.

Next Sunday will be the sixth meeting between the Armagh and Down champions in the Ulster campaign since 1996 and the Mourne County has yet to register a win. Big Joe guided Cross to victory over Burren in 96 & 97 while Kilcoo will be hoping to stop a four in a row defeat for their county on Sunday as Burren 2010 & 2011, and Kilcoo last year have lost out to the champions. Interestingly, in all previous 5 meetings Cross has managed a minimum of 12 scores against their Down opponents. Kilcoo will be out to alter that stat on Sunday if they are to be successful.

Going on County final performances the big match up on Sunday is between the respective Man of the Match recipients. Rangers full-forward Kyle Carragher could be in direct opposition to Niall McEvoy moved to the full-back position with Aidan Branagan going to midfield, a move which transformed the Kilcoo performance. Manager Jim McCorry will have noted Carragher’s performance and now faces the decision as to who to start at number three. The one thing that McCorry will be hoping for is a better start that the last time the teams met as Cross, despite going to sleep for a long spell, were always in control letting their vast experience take over at the crucial moments, especially when they were numerically reduced.

It is worth noting that early on in last year’s final Cross lost the services of the Kernan brothers Stephen and Paul. Paul has taken a year out of football due to a persistent shoulder injury but brother Stephen has been a key cog in all that is good about Crossmaglen. It is very seldom that Stephen has not been to the fore in all the “big games” that Cross has been involved in. Now the eldest statesman in the forwards he has come to the aid of midfield when needed this year. The first bit of game time given to David McKenna in the county final might see him get a midfield berth alongside powerhouse Johnny Hanratty. That duo dominated this sector when the sides last met, plus it allows Stephen revert to his most potent role at number 11.

Rangers have also the option of including Stephen Finnegan in the full-back line. Stephen missed the final having just flown in from America where he was on wedding duty. The former County man had been outstanding against both Og’s and Maghery and will be chomping at the bit to regain his place. A minus for the champions was the man at the centre of the controversy Aaron Cunningham going off with a shoulder injury towards the end of the St Pat’s game, making him a doubt for Sunday.

Kilcoo were very sporadic with their scoring against Burren, with decisive telling bursts at the end of each half making the difference. The Magpies had one point to show for 26 first half minutes before hitting 3 without reply, to lead 4-3 at the short whistle.  The had only 2 points on the board for 29 second half minutes when another 3 on the trot saw them over the finishing line.

The most common comment one keeps hearing is that Crossmaglen Rangers are not as good as they were- but they keep on winning. That the champions know how to evolve and transgress the loss of some major influential players, and still keep at the head of the posse is a remarkable feat in itself. As already mentioned, a glance at the twelve month old team sheets would give the indication that the advantage now falls the way of Kilcoo. To counteract that is the fact that this is Crossmaglen Rangers’ 47th game in the Ulster club championship (W 34 D 6 L6) and you have to go back 21 games to 2005 when they were beaten at home 0-11 to 0-9 by Bellaghy for their last defeat in this competition.

Kilcoo did exceptionally well to stifle the Burren forwards but Cross have players who can score from all over the field. Rangers forte has been their ability to churn out 7 or 8 different scorers in games and yet their leading lights, scoring wise, have not figured prominently. When the sides last met, Jamie Clarke did not score yet Cross produced 8 different men on the scoreboard as opposed to 5 for Kilcoo.

Fast starts have been a feature of Cross in the championship to date with the long accurate delivery of ball to a very pacey full-forward trio producing massive dividends. The first 7 points in the Armagh final were all from play and were all from the boots of Brennan, Carragher and Cumiskey. Talking earlier how Cross evolve, one also has to take into consideration how once the pressure of delivering the minimum requirement, an Armagh title, sees them move up a gear in Ulster. Often one sees Cross struggle in Armagh but once the outside challenge is thrown down they are able to raise their game a notch as their results show. Burren had Kilcoo on the back foot early in their contest with the Magpies picking up yellows and Burren accumulating wides, 8 in the opening 20 minutes, they cannot afford Rangers the same latitude otherwise it could be curtains.

The platform for a Cross victory will come from midfield supremacy and a raiding half back line that can unlock their tight defence. Aaron Kernan, Martin Aherne, Paul Hughes coming from deep can have a big influence. The “dirty ball” contest between the two forties is where Cross is past masters as they gather more than their share to put teams to the sword. Even with their absentees, manager Joe has a formidable influential bench from where he can spring matchwinners whilst the opposition are not as well blessed in that department. Danny O’Callaghan, Callum Cumiskey and Kyle Brennan all saw matchtime when the sides last met and have since cemented their places in the first 15. Paul McKeown shackled Robbie Tasker the last time out and will probably be given the same role to curb the very influential Conor Laverty. Paul and Anthony Devlin, Jerome and Ryan Johnston will know what to expect from a tight Rangers rearguard that will probably show 3 changes from last year.

The Magpies may have swooped late to rob the Burren nest but early birds Cross will have flown the coup with their dreams of four in a row still intact. The all-round ability and experience of champions Cross will be sufficient to see off a very strong determined Kilcoo challenge.