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Rangers will have the Gall

October 26, 2010

AIB ULSTER CLUB: CROSSMAGLEN RANGERS V ST. GALL’S

On their return to the big stage after a twelve months absence Crossmaglen Rangers could not have been handed a more daunting task than facing defending Ulster and All-Ireland St Gall’s. These two clubs have become the model of consistancy within their respective with St Gall’s recent 2-10 to 0-11 win over Cargin giving them their ninth McNamee Cup in 10 years with Rangers 1-11 to 1-8 defeat of Dromintee making it 14 out of 15 titles in Armagh..

When record seeking Crossmaglen were denied by Pearse Og in last year’s Armagh championship the road to Sunday’s showpiece looked a long way down the line especially given the already well documented retirements of key personnel. One of those retirees Tony McEntee took up the management reigns with former team mate Gareth O’Neill as assistant. Just like back in 1996 at the beginning of unprecedented success for the club Cross were at the crossroads, no championship for a decade, and a different footballing approach, away from their traditional catch and kick style, was embarked upon.

An opening day struggle against Sarsfields was frowned upon by the traditionalists but look what it went on to lead to. Last year’s retirements robbed Rangers of some of their main attributes, physicality, ball winners, natural leaders who led by example and deed. But it did not rob them of key ingredients to their phenomenal success, self belief, a will to win, selfless commitment and sacrifice to embellish the insatiable hunger for success which has never diminished no matter what has been achieved but the most important attribute lest a lot of people forget which is key to Crossmaglen Rangers rise to the number one club in the country, is talent.

While Cross face a daunting prospect in what their manager describes as bonus territory, champions St Gall’s could have thought of a lot more places to come to than St Oliver Plunkett Park for an opening defence of their provincial and All-Ireland crown. Last March in their centenary year St Gall’s beat Kilmurray-Ibrickane 0-13 to 1-5 to win their first All-Ireland title and make up for the disappointment of losing to Salthill-Knocknacarra in the final in 2006.

One would expect, given the recent records of both clubs, that they would have crossed paths more times than their 2007 Ulster final meeting in Pairc Eslar, Newry. The Antrim Champions in their fourth Ulster final, were installed as favourites for that match having lost the All-Ireland and Cross struggling to wins over Clontibret and Dromore to reach the final. The once dubbed “ultimate football machine” from the Milltown area of Belfast were beaten 1-9 to 1-6 by the “Mean Machine” which was Rangers defence. In a role reversal from that one meeting between the teams Cross are about where Gall’s were then with the current title holders in Rangers position.

It is worth noting that four Cross minors prior to that Ulster final between Sunday’s rivals were added to the panel namely Danny O’Callaghan, Francis Hanratty, Aaron Cunningham and Jamie Clarke. With the exception of the suspended Jamie the other 3 played key roles in winning back the Armagh championship in 2010. In the Co. final win over Dromintee Rangers used a total of 13 players Paul Hearty, Stephen Finnegan, Paul Kernan, Aaron Kernan, Paul McKeown, David McKenna, Mickey McNamee, Martin Aherne, Tony Kernan , Johnny Hanratty, Oisin McConville Subs used-  Stephen Kernan and Kyle Carragher who had seen action against St Gall’s in Newry. The Man of the Match from the Co Final, Francie Bellew, was an injured absentee for that 2007 final.

CJ McGourty who top scored with 2-5 in the Co final win over Cargin came on as a sub against Cross in the Marshes final but 12 more of his team mates Ronan Gallagher, Paul Veronican, Colin Brady, Terry O’Neill, Sean Kelly, Anthony Healy, Sean Burke, Aodhan Gallagher, Karl Stewart, Kevin Niblock, Kieran McGourty and Kevin McGourty who also featured against Cross were active in the completion of 4 in a row Antrim championships.

Manager Lenny Harbison will be the first to acknowledge that his charges have not ignited on the way to retaining their county title  That second half two goal burst from CJ McGourty in the final with Cargin allowed them to coast home after a tight first half which saw them lead 0-7 to 0-5. Sunday is a classic encounter with the new kids on the block in terms of defending Ulster and Provincial titles in St Gall’s taking on past masters of the art in Crossmaglen Rangers.

This “new Rangers team” have gotton the monkey off their back and written their own piece of history by claiming a national record of 38 senior football titles and will be more able to express themselves as it is seldom that they go into matches as underdogs. All -Ireland champions Gall’s are joint 5/1 favourites to retain their title and 6/4 to win Ulster. Sunday will be their biggest test and they will have to be firing on all cylinders if they are to clear the first hurdle.

The big worry for Rangers management is how to get more possession at midfield. Cross cannot continue to give huge sway at midfield and hope that their defence can hold out on a continual basis. Johnny Hanratty had probably his best hour in a Cross jersey working tirelessy all over the field blocking , harrying and fetching. Injury plagued partner David McKenna is lacking consistancy of performance. In terms of clean possession it was veteran second half substitute Francie Bellew who gave an exhibition of high catching plucking some super ball out of the sky none more important than the midfield fetch after Dromintee had drawn level. County minor last year James Morgan has slotted into the full back line alongside team captain Paul McKeown and full back Paul Kernan with aplomb with his man marking ability already noted.

New centre half back Danny O’Callaghan is warming to his task even though he can lose his positional sense at times he tackles and grafts well as he adopts to his new position. Aaron Kernan, back in defence, since operating in the forwards for the county is no where near close to his best this year. Still his capabilities and match winning performances can return in an instant. Stephen Finnegan has found it hard to make his position in the team permanent not pushing on from the promise shown a few years ago. Martin Aherne, who has yet to reach the high standards achieved pre injury, looked comfortable when brought into the half back line against Dromintee. A fit again and available for selection of Brendan McKeown will add a lot to Rangers rearguard options. If the talented but volatile CJ McGourty can be curbed the Gall’s scoring threat is severely diminished.

Centre forward, Stephen Kernan has been his side’s most consistent performer all year. His vision in setting up scores as well as taking them has seen him lead the line well for Cross in an attack that has been minus the services of Oisin McConville and Jamie Clarke for key matches. Clarke will again be an absentee on Sunday due to suspension. Francis Hanratty is another with the ability to win matches, he took his goal superbly well in the Co final and can be deemed a little unlucky to be called ashore, although that could have been because of the loss of vital posession once too often. Mickey McNamee, Tony Kernan and Aaron Cunningham have all had better days out than in the County final but they worked very hard and put in their stint in the collective which is Cross and on any given day they are potential match winners. The return from suspension of Oisin was the calming and steadying influence that Cross needed. The veteran attacker finished with 0-4 to his credit and a huge part in the goal, spotting the loose Hanratty while surrounded by defenders. But opening scores for his team in either half were the ones which brought assurance. St Gall’s will also remember his 1-5 contribution in their defeat.

The big question for Cross management is what to do with their super subs who made a huge impact when introduced. Francie was selected Man of the Match, Kyle Carragher fired over 3 match winning points and Martin Aherne was very effective in defence. The biggest fillip this Rangers squad will have received is that by winning back the county title the comparisons can stop. They have earned their own niche in the clubs chequered history the comparisons with what has gone before can now be cast aside. The 2010 Crossmaglen Rangers County Champions are the beginning of a new era for the club. A new dawn , new horizons, new players winning a first senior championship medal, one thing that you can be guaranteed is that their pedigree decrees that there will be more to come. The step up alone in terms of discipline for Cross from the semi-final to the final was immense.

For sure no one will be under any illusions that Crossmaglen Rangers will have the gall to defeat the champions. This current Rangers team is a lot better than people are giving them credit for as Sunday’s result will testify.

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