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Decisions Not Taken Lightly

November 25, 2008


ULSTER CLUB FINAL PREVIEW


The strange decision by the Ulster Council to play the prestigious Ulster Senior Club Football Final in Enniskillen under lights at 3-45 next Sunday has not been taken lightly by the teams involved Crossmaglen Rangers and Ballinderry or their supporters.

Despite all the records they have set and all the championship matches they have played Sunday will be the first time for Crossmaglen Rangers to play a championship match under lights. It is very unfair because of the likelihood of live television coverage that this decision for a first Ulster final under lights has been taken. I wonder if the Munster Council were asked to play their hurling decider as the second match of the proposed TV double header. That the schedule is the way it is says it all. Allowing for the fact that the match will be under lights you would think that it would be played when it is dark not “between the two lights” as dusk falls.

Regardless of how, when, where the situation is that three in a row seeking Crossmaglen Rangers face a very daunting task against their 2006 conquests Ballinderry who are seeking their third Ulster club title. The Shamrock’s will be all out to avenge that Casement Park defeat in which they failed to raise a flag in the first half as they lost out 0-5 to 0-3 on a day that conditions for playing football were absolutely horrific.

The form guide coming into that 2006 final is not too far away from present form with the Derry champions swashbuckling their way to the final as the defending champions Cross struggle past weak opposition to cling to their title aspirations.

But the stunning statistic that stands out is Crossmaglen Rangers in a final are a very different kind of animal. A magnificent championship final record of having won the last 25 championship finals that they have played in is enough to put the wind up any opposition as to the mammoth task they face.

8 ALL ON COUNTY PANELISTS

There is nothing to separate the finalists in terms of current county panelists with each team having 8 players on the respective Derry and Armagh panels in 2008.

While Ballinderry will look to their Oak Leaf representatives Enda Muldoon, Conleith Gilligan, Niall McCusker, Kevin McGuckin, Michael McIver, James Conway, Collie Devlin and Raymond Wilkinson to fire up their challenge Crossmaglen Rangers Orchard contingent were Paul Hearty, Francie Bellew,  David McKenna, Oisin McConville and the four Kernan brothers Aaron, Paul, Stephen and Tony.

The Ballinderry team that blew away Cavan Gaels in the semi-final 0-17 to 0-7 shows 4 changes from the starting 15 in the 2006 final meeting between the teams. Corner backs Kevin McGuckin and Declan Crozier have been replaced by Declan Bell and Colin Wilkinson. Half back Paul Wilson is replaced by Chris Nevin with former Tyrone star Brian McGuckin in attack for Sean Donnelly.

The Cross side that defeated St Eunan’s in the semi-final also showed 4 changes from the team that played against Ballinderry Shaun McNamee, Brendan McKeown, Stephen Clarke and Johnny Hanratty were absent being replaced by Francie Bellew, Aaron Kernan, Paul McKeown and Cathal Short.

Rival managers, Rangers Donal Murtagh and Martin McKinless have also made positional switches to their personnel since their last meeting. The 2006 win by Cross was down to the tactical man marking switches employed by Donal which worked a treat on the day. Tony McEntee was deployed in defence to accompany Enda Muldoon. Muldoon started and finished the Cavan Gaels match at midfield. Paul Kernan did a great job marking Conleith Gilligan. On a whole that day the sextet of Rangers defenders performed heroically. This time round they have the added services of county men Francie and Aaron fit for duty from the outset.

Crossmaglen Rangers have played a total of 6 matches to reach the Ulster final. The defending champions have scored For 5-77 Against 1-49 averaging a 0-15 to 0-9 success rate per match. Ballinderry had 15 different players on the scoresheet during the course of their 8 championship matches prior to the Ulster final. The Derry championship commences with three group matches to qualify for the quarter final knock-out stages. Their scores amounted to 5 -113 for with 3-63 against leaving them with a success rate per match of 0-21 to 0-09.

Conleith Gilligan 0-25 Colin Devlin 1-22 Raymond Wilkinson 2-13 as you can see have been the chief contributors to those scores.

BATTLE HARDENED CHAMPIONS

Earlier we outlined the fact that both teams had 8 county representatives but it is the extra ingredients that the battled hardened champions bring to the table that sets them apart from the rest.

 The Twin Towers will always have it’s name etched in history but so too will Crossmaglen own twin towers John and Tony McEntee. Everybody knows that it is the former Armagh kingpin twin brothers that really make this Rangers side tick. Their sheer physicality, ball catching, fetching and carrying with a few killer inspirational points thrown in over the years has helped their team mates out of tight situations on numerous occasions.

The addition of current team captain John Donaldson for the last decade has been a blessing to an already talented side. The team captain came from the same sort of mould as that of the twins with their football heart worn on their sleeve for all to see in commitment that belies the top level of competition that they have continually endured since taking up the game. That the old stagers have been to the forefront of the present campaign in driving the team forward is no surprise. But like all good teams there are the grafters and the finishers.

When it comes to finishers Cross Rangers have the best in the country in all time record Ulster Senior footballs top scorer Oisin McConville. For my inter- cert we had to study a book called Hard Times (very appropriate in the present economic climate) and the opening line of that book says all there is to know about Oisin’s contribution. “The facts, the facts, you cannot dispute the facts”. The facts, figures, awards, achievements of the man are a week’s work on their own. Suffice to say that in all his years at any level donning a black and amber jersey Oisin has never left the field of play without scoring.

Since 1996 Cross have played in 104 championship matches with Oisin playing a full part in 103 of those games and coming out with a personal average of 6 points per game. The curses of many a team have been hurled at one of the games most prolific marksmen ever after his boot has been the main instrument of their defeat. The contribution from open play might not be what it was but his proven eye for goal and the ability to dissect the posts when most needed still has him as a very vital cog in this Rangers machine.

A bit of an unsung hero throughout this successful run is current full forward Cathal Short who has re-established himself back on the starting fifteen following a spell on the subs bench. It was way back on Dec 8 1996 that Cathal got the goal to win the first Ulster title and set the current ball rolling on its continued merry way. The current target man has notched some vital scores and made a lot of telling contributions since that Clones goal.

The continued success of Cross, 13 county championships in a row, cannot be sustained without the infusion of new blood. Rangers have evolved year in year out by introducing new formidable talent into the team. Going back to the 2006 Ulster Final with Ballinderry Ryan Carragher, Paul Kernan, Tony Kernan, David McKenna and Tony Kernan were only starting to get on the team now they have a couple of Ulster an All-Ireland and three Armagh championship medals in their pockets. Throw in Paul McKeown, Stephen Finnegan, Kyle Carragher, and Jamie Clarke and manager Donal will be hoping that they can do half as well as his mid-twenties brigade who had a similar start to their Rangers careers just like the present young crop.

 Of those in their mid-twenties Stephen and Aaron Kernan have progressed with both club and county. Mickey McNamee, John Murtagh and the now returned from injury Brendan McKeown have all been integral parts of the club successes. The only minus going into Sunday’s final for Cross is the loss of the ever improving Martin Aherne who was playing the best football of his career until sustaining a severe head injury in the defeat of St Patrick’s Donagh the Fermanagh champions.

BALLINDERERY LOOKING TO BLOW OUT THE LIGHTS

Ballinderry Shamrocks the 2002 All-Ireland champions with victory over Nemo Rangers upset the short odds on the Cork champions that day. The Oak Leaf representatives will be looking to blow out the lights on the Rangers championship finals record and have the ammunition on board to do so.

The key to their run to date has not been the form of their more vaunted players but that of diminutive forward Raymond Wilkinson, who has been free scoring from play on a regular basis. Martin Harney and Muldoon have given Shamrocks a midfield edge which allows Wilkinson and Collie Devlin rack up the scores. The central spine of the Ballindery defence Niall McCusker and Kevin McGuckin have been rock solid with Michael McIvor and James Conway bombing forward to support their attack for which Gilligan is the target man.

The lob sided second half of the semi-final victory over Cavan Gaels, the sides had gone to the dressing rooms tied at 5-5, gives a false impression. The Cavan champions had lost their main talisman Seanie Johnson after 10 minutes to injury followed by ace forward Paul O Donnell after having lost free-taker Cormac Nelligan in the warm up before the game. A truer reflection on the Ballinderry psyche can be taken from their 1-11 to 0-10 quarter final win over Monaghan champions Latton. Again in this match the teams went in level at the break 0-5 each but Latton had a man sent off just on the blow of the interval whistle.  A Raymond Wilkinson goal gave Ballinderry early on the restart gave Ballinderry breathing space but the physicality of the Latton challenge gave them lots of trouble.

IN YOUR FACE DEFENDING

Cross know that anything like their sloppy starts to their last three matches will not do on Sunday. Ballinderry have the players to punish such sloppiness on the scoreboard where it hurts most.

Rangers once they resorted to type, close marking, in your face defending in the last few matches, won, with a bit in hand. They have already seen that a full hour of such football was needed to defeat Ballinderry and this time round will be no different.

If a fault has developed in the Rangers play it is a bit similar to that of Armagh’s in that they are being over-run in the half forward line. The opposing half backs have been coming in picking up a lot of loose ball in the midfield sector unchallenged as well as connecting with their midfielders for the offload ball. Cross are always at their best when defending from the front. When Rangers throw up that defensive formation there is no better exponent of tweaking out that unfashionable looking tight win. It is only one reflection after reviewing a few of these famous wins just how comfortable and composed the champions were playing this sort of game. An open expansive game will only suit the challengers a fact that will not be lost on the champions.

The Cross training since the win over St Eunan’s must have been pretty intense given that manager Donal made four tactical enforced substitutions during the course of that match. There will be a few anxious players waiting to see if they will get the nod to start on Sunday. Will Francie play in the last line of defence or at centre half back. Can David McKenna repeat his storming midfield performance when the sides last met? Will Johnny Hanratty another player who had a terrific 2006 final get a starting berth?

We all know what the champions are capable of on their day. Rangers have gone into the last two Ulster finals on foot of poor performances and worked the oracle. There may be a few question marks with regards to team selection but such was the case at the last time of asking between these two and the manager got it right. Francie and Aaron will be included from the off this time strengthening the Rangers cause. If anything Cross are a stronger better side than the one that won the battle of Casement. Caught on the hop by St Vincent’s in the only blemish since these sides last met, Cross will not be caught in the crossover between dusk and dark.

When the lights at Brewster Park are switched on there will be nothing more switched on than the champions as they go in search of three in a row. Having spent the last 13 years in the bright lights of unprecedented success there is no reason to foresee that dimmed in the inaugural “lit up” final.



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