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Confident Champions is key

October 5, 2015

The big question going into Sunday’s repeat County Final, featuring champions Crossmaglen Rangers and opponents Armagh Harps is as follows, in light of last year’s 4-14 to 0-9 hammering, “is the Harp glass half-full or half empty” when it comes to the real belief that they can be crowned Armagh champions for the first time since 1991.

Going into Sunday’s final, the stats, momentum, team performances all stack up in favour of the underdogs Harps, but this is Crossmaglen Rangers appearing in their 19th Final in the last 20 years with no final losses to date, that they are up against. Twelve months ago Harps went into the final given a very realistic chance of causing an upset but their title dreams were dashed by a 1-4 salvo in the opening quarter which enabled Cross skate home with ease having established a 2-7 to 0-1 interval lead. Twelve months on Cross, without doing or showing anything special on the way, are seeking their sixth title on the trot pitted against the counties current in-form team.

Regardless of current form the confidence derived from their past final exploits will be key for Cross come Sunday. The very formidable Armagh Harps challenge is the ideal carrot to dangle in front of them to pull them up a level or two which, in fairness, they have not had to do to reach the final. In a Dublin like scenario it is only when the real challenge arrives that true champion’s instinct, pride of achievement kicks –in and the performance level is upped. Crossmaglen Rangers know what’s on the line-Armagh Harps know that they will have to reach a team level of performance beyond anything they have ever produced before.

Key players

The huge plus for Harps twelve months on is the availability of a fully fit full forward Gareth Swift. It was his second half introduction against St Pat’s in their drawn second round encounter that swung the game in their favour. Gareth has since become a key component in Harps successes so much so that he has become the championship’s highest scorer. The quality of ball to Swift has been terrific especially from power house midfield duo Declan McKenna and Charlie Vernon. The stopping of this Harps trio will be of top priority for Rangers management.

Champions Cross have been plagued by injuries all year and things do not seem to have improved on that front following the early semi-final loss of the very influential Aaron Kernan through injury. Last year’s Man of the Match, who scored 0-3, is a major doubt as he receives treatment for a leg injury having gone off some 18 minutes into the Maghery game.

No doubt the loss of Aaron would be a huge blow to a Rangers side that has already had to adopt without the services of one of last year’s final heroes Jamie Clarke. Jamie scored 2-1 in the final and his absence in the 2015 Championship has led to a distinct lack of creativity in the Rangers forward division. Indeed a very unusual fact from their semi-final win over Maghery is that none of the starting Cross full-forward line scored and also it was the only time that the champions failed to raise a green flag in their four championship outings. A supposedly miss-firing forward division, minus the services of Jamie have scored 9-51 in total to date an average of above 2-13 per match shows us why the champions are so successful. Stephen and Tony Kernan and Mickey McNamee have stepped up to the plate on many an occasion in the past. The two Kyles, Carragher and Brennan, Rico Kelly, Aaron Cunningham, John Murtagh, Padraig Stuttard will be making it hot competition for a starting berth with all at some stage probably getting the call to arms to stake a claim for permanent inclusion on the starting 15. Whilst some question the Rangers forward penetration they will be up against Harps weaker section, their defence. Conall McKee, Mark McCoy and Mark McConville have looked far from steady as a unit in their last line of defence. Gavin McParland netted twice against them in the semi with keeper Morrison saving them for further goal concessions in the semi, in both games with the Pat’s the losers wasted the goal opportunities afforded them. Cross punished Harps every defensive lapse 12 months ago and will do the same again come Sunday. It will be interesting to see what roles half-backs Karol Loughran, Conor White and Joe McElroy adopt on Sunday. Given the quality of their opponents attack will they go out as an attacking or defensive unit?

RECORD SEEKING PAUL

Sunday will be a special day for Rangers number 1 Paul Hearty in more ways than one. For not alone will Paul be seeking a record number of championship winners medals he will also be hoping to lift the Gerry Fegan Cup as Captain. The former County custodian played in his first final on Aug 4 1996 and will be seeking a 19th. Medal on Sunday. Paul will be very keen to avoid the stigma of being the first losing Rangers Co Final Captain since his debut as a gasson 20 years ago.

Paul, like his counterpart Paddy Morrison between the sticks for Harps, will be vital cogs for both outfits as they try to get their kick-outs to their intended targets. Paul with his length of kick has been able to bypass midfield if it is proving troublesome as he has done in the past. But it will be his vast experience at contesting the high ball that could prove to be more vital on this occasion. Paul could be called upon to leave his line as Harps launch high ball to test out improving full-back Aidan Rushe up against the in-form Swift.

Opposition custodian Morrison featured prominently in the semi-final win over Ballymacnab with a few fine saves at key moments in the game to deny the ‘Nab gaining any key momentum. Having shipped four goals 12 months ago, none of which were his fault, Paddy will be glad that the goal machine Jamie is one less to worry about on this occasion.

Given the quality of forwards they face, both Paul and Paddy are in for a busy afternoon with whose back might ache the most at the end letting us into the vital secret as to who will emerge victorious.

FRINGE PLAYERS PERFORMANCE PINNICLE

Interestingly the starting semi-final teams for both finalists each carried a significant number of changes from the sides that began the 2014 final. Champions Cross sported 5 changes with Harps featuring one less.

Cross were without Stephen Finnegan, Callum Cumiskey, Rico Kelly, Jamie Clarke and John Murtagh replaced by Aidan Rushe, David McKenna, Stephen Kernan, Aaron Cunningham and Kyle Brennan. Rangers for their part have only showed one defensive change for the sextet that held Harps much vaunted attack scoreless from play for 33 minutes. A used substitute in the last final, former county minor full-back Aidan Rushe has come in and has performed very well to date. Aidan is surrounded with solidity with the tenacity, tackling and tight marking abilities of Paul Hughes, Paul McKeown and James Morgan endorsed by the sweeping up speed added to the defensive structure by Aaron Kernan and Martin Aherne. Aidan will be safe in the knowledge that he will not be left alone to a Swift battle with the former held scoreless last year.

Harps were without Kevin Morris, Conal Lennon, Rory McGrath, Simon McCoy and Ultan Lennon from the final team as opposed to the one that reached Sunday’s decider by beating Ballymacnab 2-16 to 2-10. Refreshingly from a Harps point of view they have begun to produce regular scorers from half-backs Karol Loughran and Conor White and with forwards Conor Coulter, Conn Stevenson and Ryan McShane becoming regular scoreboard contributors it’s easy to see how Harps have accumulated 6-58 from their 5 games played.

Rangers are at their best when they are put to the pin of their collar and Sunday will be one of those occasions. Because of their poor form and in light of last year’s dismal Ulster campaign many feel that the champion’s days are numbered. Anyone who was early enough for last week’s minor final was able to see just the exact opposite as their minors captured back to back titles with some tremendous talent on display. Indeed Oisin O Neill who played in that minor final came on as a late substitute for the seniors in the game immediately after winning his minor medal.

This year Harps have cemented the view that they are the second best team in the county. To make the next step will take a giant stride going on last year’s final stats which makes for poor reading for the challengers who accumulated 13 wides to Rangers 3. Cross score 18 times double that of Harps and also doubled up when it came to scorers producing 8 to Harps 4. Still, there is a ray of light for the challengers, no Jamie and a possible Aaron,  like last year they have the ability to dominate around midfield, a hope that they will not produce as dismal an opening half as 12 months ago and key a belief that they can actually dethrone the mighty Rangers.

For me Sunday is just routine for Cross, their final exploits and record are there for all to see. Cross are inundated with experienced players with the nous and know how to get the job done without ever being spectacular, all that ever matters to the champions is that they get the job in hand done –winning. Yes I do expect this to be a very tight encounter with little between the teams but the telling difference in the end will be the selection options available to Cross management. They will have proven match winners to call from the bench and within Armagh are able to shore up their shortcomings. Harps are making ground but still have a little bit of catching up to do not least a daunting psychological 17 point turnaround. The bookie odds are a good indicator and they are firmly in my camp with regards to the outcome. The champions may struggle but will find a way to get over the line for win number nineteen.

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