Roles Reversed

October 25, 2011

Ulster Championship St. Gall’s v Crossmaglen

Twelve months ago the St Gall’s bandwagon rolled into Crossmaglen laden with silverwear as the Ulster and All-Ireland crowns were on board as the Antrim kingpins celebrated their centenary year in style by winning both of those titlesOn Sunday Crossmaglen Rangers will travel to Casement Park carrying the said same baggage after having relieved their opponents of the titles in a 1-12 to 0-9 win Rangers went all the way in both Ulster and the All-Ireland.

Even the most fervent of Cross supporters would never have envisaged 2010 turning out to be so good. After relinquishing the Armagh title the year before the reclaiming of it was the priority of the new management team of Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill especially after losing much of their physical presence following the retirement of key personnel. Having won their fourteenth Armagh title in 15 years Rangers faced the acid test in the first round of Ulster against the champions St Gall’s and that match contained everything. Two first half sendings off one from each side, a first half penalty converted by Oisin McConville which helped Rangers lead 1-8 to 0-5 at the break, a second half penalty save by Paul Hearty from Kevin Niblock, a virtuoso performance from Oisin McConville who scored 1-6. The eagerly awaited rematch has a lot to live up to next weekend where another explosive encounter is expected especially given the time of year for the game.

Having seen their dreams shattered in Crossmaglen St Gall’s re-grouped in 2011. A 4-19 to 1-6 win over Moneyglass got the championship campaign up and running. Gall’s conceded another 1-6 in their semi-final win over St Brigid’s but hit 0-19 to set up a final meeting with a youthful Lamh Dhearg who had 6 teenagers in their line-up. The underdogs, for whom Paddy Cunningham scored 0-8, were finally undone by a hat-trick of points in as many minutes from Kevin Niblock which stretched his side’s lead to 4 points in a game which finished 0-14 to 0-11 as St. Gall’s claimed their 10th Antrim SFC title in 11 years at Casement Park.

Cross were assigned two second division teams Clann Eireann and Armagh Harps who were brushed aside as they reached a semi-final tilt at Pearse Og the team who had ended their record seeking championship run. Cross comfortably put paid to the city sides chances to set up a final against first time finalists Ballymacnab. In their 2-22 to 0-3 victory over the ‘Nab it is all to easy to claim that the opposition froze and failed to show. This line of thought does no justice as to just how good Cross were on the day as they gave an exhibition of football. Given that they recorded such a high score one would expect the scorers in chief Oisin and Jamie to have had a field day but not so. Jamie failed to score but played very well in setting up his colleagues while Oisin was held in reserve until late on but managed a point when introduced off the bench. Indeed Jamie for Oisin in the county final starting 15 was the only change from the team which took the field against St Gall’s last year in Cross. Jamie was suspended for that outing. Given his terrific track record against the Gall’s it is very hard to see Oisin being left out of Sunday’s starting 15. One tends to forget when talking about Cross is just how young the bulk of the team is. Leaving Hearty and Oisin aside at 28 years Stephen Kernan is the elder statesman of the team and this years Captain. A stand out for Division One player of the Year Stephen by virtue of his performances has rekindled his county career and has provided the ideal fulcrum to filter the ball for the new style of Cross football. Paul Hearty fronted by Paul McKeown; Paul Kernan; James Morgan; Aaron Kernan , Danny O’Callaghan and Stephen Finnegan have already faced the might of Kevin Niblock, CJ McGourty, Karl Stewart, Michael Pollock and Kieran McGourty and passed the test. The sextet and keeper who was super in the corresponding fixture last year will no doubt be in the firing line in Casement and will face a much tougher examination of their credentials than they got the last day out at the Athletic Grounds.

Gall’s manager Lenny Harbison is definitely of the breed as Oisin McConville once told me “That’s the secret of good champions is always looking and seeking to learn, regardless of what you have done before.” Harbison will have learned from their approach to last years game in Cross. St Gall’s got sidetracked with physicality last year and the game was over at the short whistle eventhough Cross only managed 4 second half points. A minus for Lenny is that he will have to plan without influential midfielder Aodhan Gallagher who is recovering from a fractured jaw. It was an inspired performance from a hitherto subdued David McKenna at midfield

which swayed the last meeting between the teams. An injury free run at last for David has him in fine fettle as his County Final Man of the Match award verifies will only compound the midfield worries for the challengers.

Sunday is a direct roles reversal in terms of where both teams are coming from since they last met. Hopefully playing conditions will allow both side play to their potential and we will get a real fireworks display of all that is good in the game. While Cross have not got the physical presence of John McEntee and Francie Bellew to roll off the bench like last year they are 12 months more used to their new style of football which is an ominous warning to all pretenders.

With Jamie added to their forward thrust and the likes of Mickey Leneghan, Martin Aherne, Kyle Brennan, Kyle Carragher and Oisin or who he replaces in the starting 15 to call on if things are not going according to plan in attack or Brendan McKeown, Garvan Carragher and Ronan Finnegan to bolster the defence Cross are every bit a formidable force as they always have been. A tight tough encounter is what we will get which will suit Cross who prefer to be examiner thoroughly from the throw-in. Rangers have improved with every championship outing this year. For them they are now in a different competition which allows them to evolve even further. While Harbinson will be looking to learn from last year his Cross counterparts have shown to be no slouches when it comes to managing their team. A semi-final berth for the boys in black and amber as they face up to their stiffest test since St Patrick’s Day and outing they have become quite used to and still want more which will see them over the line eventhough the shoe is on the other foot this time. The auld guard of honour trick will not distract the Rangers from their objective.