Rivalry Renewed

November 8, 2011

• AIB Ulster Club Crossmaglen Rangers v Ballinderry Shamrocks

It is widely accepted that only for Crossmaglen Rangers getting in their way Sunday’s Ulster semi-final opponents Ballinderry Shamrocks would have added to their 2002 possession of the Andy Merrigan Cup. The teams met in the Ulster in 2006 at Casement, in terrible conditions, with Rangers winning a very low scoring affair 0-5 to 0-3. Two years later it took a replay (draw 1-10 each) win 0-12 to 1-4 for Cross to overcome their Derry opponents.

It was old hands to the fore for Ballinderry as Kevin McGuckin, Enda Muldoon and Conleith Gilligan used all their experience to guide Shamrocks past Tyrone champions Dromore in the last round. The Derry champions made a dream start with the only goal of the game arriving 40 seconds after the throw-in as half forward Michael McIver punched a high ball from corner forward Ryan Bell to the net. When Dromore dominated midfield Muldoon was hauled to that area to regain a foothold and help his team to a 1-6 to 0-7 interval lead. It was a 6 point haul from Gilligan (3 frees) which kept the winners ticking over with teenager Aaron Devlin contributing 2 classy points at crucial stages.

Ballinderry are building a reputation as fast starters as it took them 43 seconds to find the net in their county final win over Kilrea, with Raymond Wilkinson netting the first of his two goals. But as in their previous games with Cross, the drawn match being the exception, big point scoring is a chink in their armoury with only 3 and 4 points against Cross and 5 against Kilrea.

On their last visit to Casement, Cross put St Gall’s to the sword 3-9 to 2-5 but there were aspects of the performance which did not please manager Tony McEntee. The dozen or so wides recorded will be one as will the letting back into the game of the losers with the concession of two slack goals. But Rangers biggest hangover from that clinical win is the injuries sustained to full back Paul Kernan and midfielder Johnny Hanratty. Dislocated shoulder for Paul and severe concussion for Johnny has them both on the non starters list for Sunday which will necessitate a reshuffle in the ranks.

Paul Hearty; Paul McKeown Paul Kernan, Aaron Kernan , David McKenna; Stephen Kernan, Mickey McNamee and  Jamie Clarke are the 8 players from the starting 15 against St Gall’s who started against Ballinderry in their last meeting, the replayed final. Ballinderry Shamrocks have 10 starters in that defeat to Cross who began against Dromore the last day. Michael Conlon; Declan Bell, C Wilkinson; Kevin McGuckin, Michael Bell; Kevin “Moss” McGuckin; Darren Conway, Conleith Gilligan, Raymond Wilkinson andMartin Harney. All the above named players will feature on Sunday but it’s those who might not feature that will dominate the pre-match talkpoints.

Brendan McKeown came on for the injured Paul Kernan against Gall’s and looked in need of the outing following a long lay off through injury. Brendan was excellent in the full-back line the last time these teams met. Rangers management will no doubt reshuffle the defence and have many options in doing so with Mickey McNamee and Martin Aherne half-back options as well as their forward roles. Cross are a better side than twelve months ago and the improvement of midfielders Johnny Hanratty and David McKenna has helped, in no small measure, with both coming to the top of their game. It would have taken a mighty blow to see the teak tough Hanratty leave the field on a stretcher motionless and despite his obvious durability his participation  has to be in serious doubt but one sure thing his willingness to play will not have abated in any measure. Team captain Stephen Kernan is the obvious partner for McKenna at midfield. A plus for Cross if they do have to make changes is that they can find a place in the starting team for ace marksman Oisin McConville whose linkup with Clarke will leave full-backs Bell, McGuckin and Wilkinson with a few sleepless hours.

Enda Muldoon was by far the best Ballinderry player in the drawn game between these teams and his absence for the replay was a huge blow to the Derrymen.  Enda along with his other Derry stars know that they will not get many more opportunities to beat the Armagh champions after Sunday. The drawn match in 2008 saw 3 red cards and 10 yellow issued but the game was far from a dirty encounter. It was pleasing to see St Gall’s captain Sean Kelly come out in defence of the way Cross play and denounced the notion that they are a dirty side, a fact that is trying to be portrayed through letter writing in daily journals, but thankfully not by journalists.

There is more than just the black and amber jerseys that they wear which has Cross and Kilkenny at the top of their respective codes at present. They are both prepared to push themselves right to the limit to achieve their goals, they play hard and fair and expect the same in return. When Kilkenny lost their 5 in a row bid they just went home and re-grouped, never griped, took their defeat on the chin, although clearly hurting and came back out to prove themselves number one. No time for self pity, no time for blame just time to move on to begin a new chapter. Cross did exactly the same after their record attempt was denied by Pearse Og. No complaints, no sour grapes, no blame except within themselves for not having achieved. That is why these teams are true champions, the blame game is entirely confined to within.

There is little doubt but the key component on Sunday will be the match officials and how they intend dealing with what will be a feisty contest. Why would you expect anything different? This is an Ulster semi-final not a tiddlywinks contest and both teams should be let at it, within the rules which govern expected feisty hurling contests, where a little leeway always seems to be given in comparison to football.

With a place in the November 27 final at stake, Rangers will be in no mood to relinquish their crowns at this stage. The champions will need the likes of Franny Hanratty and Aaron Cunningham to come real good on their obvious potential as it will be all hands to the pump to fend off the formidable Ballinderry challenge. It will be seen as a  last chance hotel for the ageing Derry stars if they are to bag a third Ulster title. The fleet footed Rangers attack which in full flow are a delight to watch to take Cross to the final as they use the open spaces of Casement to run the Ballinderry defence ragged. Rangers will need to be more clinical in front of the posts than they were a fortnight ago. Good teams always find an edge and their absent comrades might just be the one which gets them over the line this time.