Omagh pose a daunting test

October 27, 2014


When Crossmaglen Rangers take on Omagh, St Enda’s on Sunday at Healy Park, Omagh it will be their 150th Championship match since June 9 1996 which has produced 18 Armagh championships, 6 All-Irelands and 10 Ulster titles in that 19 year spell.

That gives Cross an average of just short of 8 championship games per calendar year (Jan-Dec) during that period. Their shortest spell was 2009 which saw a February 4-12 to 0-6 win over Dromcollogher-Broadford (Limerick) followed by an All-Ireland defeat 1-9 to 0-7 by Kilmacud Crokes. A first round Armagh championship win over Tir na nOg 3-19 to 0-6 came before the 0-7 to 0-4 defeat by Pearse Og to deny Rangers a record 14th. title in a row.

The longest yearly championship campaign spanned 11 games played in 2004 & 2007 with 10 being the number played in 1998, 2008 and 2012.

Following their fifth Armagh title in a row since that OG’s defeat Cross have now been installed favourites to win both the Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

Crossmaglen Rangers championship record 1996-2014

Played- 149 Won-123 Drew-14 Lost -12

Ulster- P- 48 W- 34 D -7 L- 7

How they got there

Omagh, St Enda’s 1-15 Coalisland 1-13

Omagh, St Enda’s 3-08 Eglish 0-08

Omagh, St Enda’s 1-07 Dromore 0-09

Omagh, St Enda’s 1-10 Carrickmore 0-12

For- 6-40 Agn-1-42

Crossmaglen Rangers 3-16 Sarsfields 1-11

Crossmaglen Rangers 3-24  Carrickcruppen 0-5

Crossmaglen Rangers1-7 Dromintee 0-0

Crossmaglen Rangers 0-18 St Patrick’s, Cullyhanna  0-12

Crossmaglen Rangers 4-12 Armagh Harps 0-09

For-11-77  Agn- 1-37


As Crossmaglen Rangers embark on their eighteenth Ulster campaign since 1996, Omagh St Enda’s will be the fourth Tyrone champions that they have crossed swords with. On October 26 1997 Errigal Ciaran 1-12 to 1-10 dethroned Cross who were defending Ulster and All-Ireland champions. In 2002 following two draws 3-7 each and 1-10 apiece Errigal Ciaran beat Cross 1-13 to 1-10. Rangers had to wait until 2012 to exact revenge on Errigal with a 2-10 to 0-10 semi-final victory. In 2003 it was Killyclogher who provided the opposition who lost out 2-10 to 1-7 and in 2007 Dromore were beaten 2-6 to 0-11.

So 2 of Rangers 7 Ulster club defeats have come at the hands of Tyrone’s Errigal, the other at the hands of Castleblayney 0-15 to 0-5 in 2000, Enniskillen Gaels 1-9 to 0-9 in 2001, Loup 0-10 to 0-8 in 2003, Bellaghy 0-11 to 0-9 in 2005 and 2013 in a replay after extra-time 3-10 to 1-08 to Kilcoo.


The manner in which each team won their respective Championships in Armagh and Tyrone will have forewarned visitors Crossmaglen Rangers that Omagh St Enda’s in their own back yard, Healy Park will provide a daunting test of their Ulster title credentials.

Omagh looked down and out in both their semi-final and final matches but struck for injury time goals against Dromore and Carrickmore to land their eighth Tyrone title in all and their first in 26 years. The never say die attitude of the home side shows their battling qualities as Ronan O’Neill in the final repeated the feat of Jason McAnulla whose late goal saw off Dromore 1-7 to 0-9 whilst O’Neill’s strike avenged the 2005 final defeat at the hands of Carrickmore for Omagh.

For the first time Armagh introduced “a back –door system” to their Championship and to say that it was a disaster at Senior level would be an understatement. Rangers came straight through the front door without a hitch with their quarter final meeting with Dromintee (their twelfth clash since 1999) putting the cap on a farcical championship with the way it panned out. We eventually wound up with what was deemed to be the two best teams in the competition in the final but the 4-14 to 0-9 final score proves that affording the dominant force Crossmaglen Rangers a second opportunity (if ever needed) is hardly the right call.

Seeking their fifth Armagh title in a row there were a lot of question marks hanging over the champions, they had not been tested, they looked suspect in the full back line, and they were lacking fluency and that this was a final and Cross did what comes natural to them when they get to finals, win them. But the manner of the win is what has people talking as they scored 4-12 out of 4-14 from play, hit 3 wides over the hour, used 5 substitutes that did not include seasoned campaigners, Stephen Kernan, Aaron Cunningham and Danny O’Callaghan and cruised to their 36th Senior success, from the last 37 finals in which they have played in. With that phenomenal record behind them, coupled with hat-trick Ulster title victories either side of the blank 2009 year and current holders Ballinderry plus Kilcoo who ended Rangers hopes last year already eliminated from the competition, it’s easy to see why Cross are such short price favourites for Ulster and All-Ireland titles.


If Cross had a worry going into the County Final it was their lack of a real tight competitive match but as they have done on many a previous occasion in the past they turned on the style when on the big stage. Twelve months ago Cross won the Creggan Parish derby against St Patrick’s for a four in a row sequence but the team that beat Harps for 5 in a row showed 5 changes from the previous year. James Morgan, Stephen Finnegan, Rico Kelly, Jamie Clarke and John Murtagh all started the 2014 final in place of Garvan Carragher, Danny O Callaghan, Aaron Cunningham, Stephen Kernan and Kyle Brennan which goes to show the strength in depth of the dominant Armagh champions.

The availability of Jamie Clarke for a full Armagh campaign has been a huge bonus with his two goals in the County final showcasing his undeniable talent. Now with Aaron Kernan’s sole football focus on Cross his influence on the club game will become even more profound. Aaron marked his inter-county retirement by picking up the Bill McCorry Memorial Trophy for the Man of the Match award in the county final, his fourth time to receive the award. Armagh’s loss is sure to be Ranger’s gain over the next few years as he continued his terrific Armagh championship form with his club.

Rico Kelly has become a regular at midfield this year and is proving to be a handful and a perfect foil for his Captain and midfield partner Johnny Hanratty. It may have taken Rico a while to gain a regular spot on the team but he has taken the opportunity afforded him by the management duo of Oisin and John with both hands. Another player who has firmly established himself from the fringes is Martin Aherne who, over the last couple of years ,has become a vital cog in the machine as both an attacker and defender. Martin’s tireless contribution as the “dirty ball gatherer” often goes un-noticed in games, but now that he has begun to score with more frequency, his valuable role for the team has made spectators see why his teammates value his contribution so highly.

Rangers reign at the top has been sustained by their ability to slip new players seamlessly into their style and system of play without disruption. Some of the new players make an instant impact and fade away; others quietly establish themselves as an ever present and a player for future reference. A hat-trick of points in successive county finals, with the opening point of the second half against Harps from Callum Cumiskey oozing class and confidence it has been plain to see that he has a very bright “Black and Amber” future ahead of him. John Murtagh marked his return to the team with a few goals, but his lack of consistency has stunted his progress from becoming a major player that his talent deserves. Kyle Carragher has established himself as an ideal target man up front showing continuously for the ball and having the ability to hold up the ball and bring others around him into the play. The most senior forward experience wise is Mickey McNamee who has adopted several roles for the team over the years, because he always puts in a shift for the team. A lot of times at the wrong end of the “Bent finger” Mickey epitomises why Crossmaglen Rangers are such a power, he never complains, does what he does for the team and “a rare” start to finish game against the Harps shows that the hunger and desire for more glory is still as strong as ever in this Cross squad.

As if defences are not already fearful of the Cross forwards the often much underrated contribution of All-Star nominee Tony Kernan has to be thrown into the mix. Tony, like a number of his colleagues is a “big time player” reserving his best for when the going gets really tough to deliver the goods in the tight championship encounters. Like his brother Aaron if he does not do you enough harm from open play through his tremendous industry both on and off the ball Tony will punish you for your indiscretions from placed balls.

Over the last few years all you can hear Cross supporters worried about is their defence. Their marquee forwards and ability to produce players from every corner of the field to notch scores relieves the pressure somewhat on their defence. Crossmaglen Rangers are Gaelic’s equivalent to Real Madrid or Barcelona in that they believe that they can always score more than their opponents so what better way of doing this than getting the ball as quickly as possible to the players who can get those scores- their forwards.

Why Rangers supporters fret over their defence is partially due to the fact that as a unit they are lacking real physical presence stature wise but compensate for this with sheer ability, tenacity, discipline and perform as a unit rather than individuals. What can one say about Rangers last line of defence except marvel at the daddy of the team 36 year old Paul Hearty who picked up his 18th County medal in style with a flying save to keep his nets intact despite being redundant for most of the game? The vast experience, the former Armagh custodian brings to his defenders, out ways his long booming deliveries from play and kick-outs that turns defence into attack in the blink of an eye. James Morgan has made a marvellous recovery from car crash injuries to get his place back for both club and county. Ideally James would rather be free of the number 3 jersey but the “must do” mantra prevails because at present he is the best man for the job. Centre back Paul McKeown is another who would feel more at home in a less central role but like James, needs dictate at present with both more than capable of holding their own against the best.

At corner or half back both Stephen Finnegan and Paul Hughes have a great reading of the game and rarely get caught out of position or on the wrong side of play. One goal conceded in the championship to date is testimony as to how well this Cross defence performs as a unit as they swarm all over you denying you space and the rare opportunity of an unopposed shot at the posts. Ranger’s defenders live on the edge in that they have perfected the art of tackling, yet are not afraid to pick up a yellow card when necessary and very seldom let their lack of discipline let them down. Quite the opposite as Cross at times thrive on adversity or teams who “get physical” with them.


With notable Tyrone players Joe and Justin McMahon, Ronan O’Neill, Conan Grugan and Barry Tierney in their line-up for Omagh, along with scoring forwards Jason McAnulla and Conor O’Donnell will certainly give Cross a thorough examination and the toughest test they have faced since Kilcoo in the same competition twelve months ago. The home side were dealt a big championship blow in their first outing against Coalisland when goal scorer and Tyrone defender Conor Clarke retired with a ruptured cruciate which has kept him out of action all year yet they still went on to lift the O’Neill Cup.

As I have alluded to already the fighting qualities shown by the home team when staring defeat right in the face, highlights the task that the Armagh champions face. The hosts will be hoping that they can keep Rangers on a tight leash to be able to give them the opportunity to strike it lucky for the third time in succession with a late winning goal as they know Cross could have you done and dusted in minutes if they get off to one of their flying starts.

Management plans for the man marking jobs of respective key attackers Clarke and O’Neill could hold the key to the final outcome as both players are potential match winners on their day if given scope and latitude. Ranger’s delivery to their forwards will need to be swift, low and accurate so that their pace can be used against a strong Omagh defence that has conceded just one goal thus far in the championship. The Tyrone defenders face a team that has scored 11 goals to date so they should be under a lot more pressure than they are used to to keep goalkeeper Ryan Clarke from being a busy man.

The marauding McMahon brothers, Hanratty, Kelly and McKenna all crossing paths through a crowded midfield sector will surely not pass like ships in the night.

Given the nature of the two beasts about to go into action I feel the busiest and most important man on Sunday will be the man in the middle, the referee because I expect this to be full blooded championship contest from the outset and how he chooses to use his whistle or cards could go a long way in deciding the outcome.

The forte for Cross is that they have been faced with similar situations like this on numerous occasions down the years and were able to cope. Omagh have celebrated their first Tyrone title in 26 years and will believe that they have nothing to lose as they are expected to be beaten while Cross on the other hand are out of Armagh and play their best football once the fear of losing on home turf has been eliminated.

Oisin and John will be hoping that their side get a very stern test of their capabilities in the context of the bigger picture that lies ahead as I feel that Cross all-round have too much in hand on their Tyrone opponents. The Rangers management duo have bench personnel at their disposal who can alter the trend of this game to telling effect should St Enda’s threaten an upset. There is no sign of a respite for all Crossmaglen Rangers opponents as the numbers on the Cross bench seem to be increasing rather than decreasing as the production line of talent continues to grow as their minor success of this year indicates.

Cross to progress to a Nov 16 semi-final match with the Donegal champions or Roslea Shamrock’s (Fermanagh) who have to meet on Nov 9.