Crossmaglen Rangers meet Kilcoo in Ulster Final

November 27, 2012

Ten out of ten

Crossmaglen Rangers return on Sunday to a venue that proved a happy hunting ground 12 months ago as it provided them with their ninth Ulster Club title. Two things have changed this time round as Cross seek to achieve the perfect ten out of ten, their Down opponents on this occasion are first time finalists Kilcoo instead of Burren and the venue has been restored to its traditional name the Athletic Grounds.

Own new niche

The Crossmaglen bandwagon though keeps rolling along unhindered and unbeaten in 27 championship outings over the last 3 years since the appointment of management duo Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill to carve out their own new niche in the chequered career of the club. When Rangers lost the 2009 Armagh championship to Pearse Og after a run of 56 Armagh championship games unbeaten, many believed, especially given the retirement of so many vastly experienced players, that the heady heights that the club has ascended to be proclaimed “the best club team in Ireland” would fall on lean times.  Not so, it was time for the new generation of Cross players to step up to the mark, and step up they certainly did, in no uncertain fashion. Management gave youth its fling and their faith in them and a new style of playing the game to suit the loss of their previously famed huge physical presence” has already brought the club to a new dimension, as they unravel opposition with a refreshing brand of attacking football.

Seasoned veterans Paul Hearty and Oisin McConville remained on board as the three Kernan brothers Aaron, Tony and Paul, Paul McKeown, Aaron Cunningham and Jamie Clarke made up the octet of players on the starting 15 who lost out 0-7 to 0-4 to Pearse Og in 2009 and started in the 2011 All-Ireland final 15 that beat St Brigid’s (Roscommon) 2-11 to 1-11. The other 7 players to start that final against the Connacht champions were James Morgan, Danny O’ Callaghan, Stephen Finnegan, Johnny Hanratty, David McKenna, Stephen Kernan and Francis Hanratty. Twelve months later in the drawn All-Ireland final with Garrycastle, Cross management brought Brendan McKeown, Kyle Brennan and Mickey McNamee into the starting 15. For the replay win Stephen Finnegan and Francis Hanratty were back on the starting team, which shows that the management duo is not afraid to make the changes when needed.

For the 2012 Armagh championship campaign Cross had to evolve even further as they had to plan without the services of Danny O Callaghan and Francis Hanratty and were then deprived the services of Jamie Clarke for the opening two rounds of the championship. Notwithstanding the absent trio Cross had to adapt without a few injured players which forced managements hand into blooding even more young talent. Paul Hughes has established himself as quite an accomplished corner-back even weighing in with points in the last two Ulster championship outings. Having come off the bench in their previous big finals Kyle Carragher has blossomed in 2012 from getting a regular starting berth taking his opportunity in impressive fashion with his last outing his least effective following some quality displays. Regularly used young substitutes Ronan Finnegan, Conor O’Neill, Mel Boyce, Callum Cumiskey and Paul Grant shows the depth of upcoming talent that Cross is producing, an ominous sign for their challengers. To cap it all Rangers quest for three in a row on all fronts has been boosted by the return from Australia of regular centre half-back Danny O’Callaghan who, when he gets up to match fitness, will be pushing hard for his place back although Sunday’s final might be a bit soon to reclaim a starting berth.

Sluggish throughout the Armagh campaign until the final against Pearse Og, it is worth noting that 3-9 to 0-11 win over the Armagh city side was the first time all year that Rangers were at near full strength. Once Armagh is out of the way and the month of October comes in, Cross become a different breed of animal as their focus, fitness goes up a few notches for the tougher tests that lay ahead. For the third game in this Ulster campaign Cross will be prohibitive odds-on shots to win their tenth Ulster Final since 1996.  St Eunan’s, Letterkenny brought their defensive game to the Athletic Grounds in the quarter final but in the end were no match for the champions who ran out 3-11 to 1-7 winners. A week later it was off to Clones where Errigal Ciaran, boasting an unbeaten 4 match run against Cross, were waiting to derail the Armagh sides triple hopes. The Tyrone side led by a point at the short whistle 0-8 to 1-4 but were blitzed in a dominant second half by the defending title holders who held them to just 2 second half points while notching 1-6 themselves for a six point winning margin 2-10 to 0-10. The Errigal bogey carried no threat for this current squad who, like everyone else, would have gone to the dressing room expecting to hear that the Dec 2 final opposition would be provided by old adversaries and former All-Ireland champions St Gall’s of Antrim. But it was Down champions Kilcoo who caused the upset of the competition coming from 3 points behind when reduced to 14 men to record a famous 1-9 to 0-10 win.

Hard to see past holders

First time finalists Kilcoo know that they are up against it as they try to halt Crossmaglen Rangers’ triple assault on retaining their titles.  Even more daunting for the underdogs is that they are bidding to become the first team to beat Cross in an Ulster final, trying to succeed where Bellaghy (1996 & 98), Ballinderry (2006 & 08), Enniskillen Gaels (1999), Mayobridge (2004), St Gall’s (2007), Naomh Conaill (2010) and Burren (2011) have all failed.

As with all two horse races the outsider always has a chance but their chance in the most part is dependent on the favourites not producing near their best. Ominously as Rangers enter the cauldron of Ulster Club Championship their performances step up a level from the Armagh championship. Kilcoo, for their part have also improved since their Down championship win, with the manner of their last victory a lot more beneficial to them than the actual overall performance. Having defied the odds to get to the final they can garner strength and belief that David once again can overcome Goliath.

With a clean bill of health to pick from, Cross management will probably opt for the one change to the starting line-out against Errigal with recovered flu victim Paul Hearty, the regular number one, returning between the posts instead of Kevin McKeown who proved more than an able deputy last time out. Such is the depth of the Rangers bench no one can rest on their laurels as Tony and Gareth were afforded the luxury of utilizing 5 substitutes in the last two outings with at least three of them to just give the younger players a feel for the action in case needed for more important roles such as next Sunday.

Jim McCorry will be forced into at least one change as he will be without influential full- back Niall McEvoy. Indiscipline, too many unforced errors, a tendency to take wrong options and a penchant for conceding needless frees are traits that the manager has been trying to eradicate from Kilcoo. Facing up to the firepower of Cross 5-21 in their last two games (Kilcoo 1-22) with such a key defender missing will be a big blow to the challengers. How will they re-shuffle their pack to cope with the Clarke, Cunningham, McConville full-forward line threat? Cross Rangers have scored 17 goals in 9 championship outings in 2012, only failing to hit the onion bag in the drawn All-Ireland final with Garrycastle. It is also worth noting since the 3 Paul Hughes, Kernan and McKeown have manned the full -back line Rangers, who were leaking goals earlier in the championship, have only let in one over the last three games.

Midfielders Paul Greenan and Donal Kane played second fiddle for a long time against St Gall’s and will once again be under the cosh as their task gets no easier as they come up against Cross Captain David McKenna and his partner Johnny Hanratty. The Rangers duo was slow to settle against the McGinley’s Cormac and Enda but eventually wore them down in a dominant second half. The Kilcoo half forward line of Jerome Johnston, Paul Devlin and Darragh O Hanlon is their most potent accounting for 0-15 of their 0-22 total in their last two games. The elusive Devlin will come up against one of the best man markers in the game in James Morgan, with their dual one to look forward to. But the lively Kilcoo trio will have to baton down the hatches in a more defensive role than they are accustomed to curb the influence of Aaron Kernan from Rangers half-back line. Aaron on the ball, spells danger for any team as he serves both as a defensive and attacking lynchpin.

If Aaron has been a big influence so too has been injury plagued eldest brother Stephen. Stephen made a telling difference when brought on against Pearse Og in the County Final and was a key performer against Errigal with his ball distribution, awareness and use of space excellent. Cross are so successful because they perform so well as a unit. You can pinpoint or highlight the contributions of certain players the next day you are writing about the huge contributions of other members of the team i.e. they have 10 different players who have scored in their last two Ulster outings.

Kilcoo will give their all and will push the champions all the way but the title holders have too many aces in their pack to slip up. Cross have a habit of making life difficult for themselves but worryingly for all challengers both their team captain and also star veteran Oisin McConville have both called for improvement and expect more yet to come from their comrades. If Kilcoo throw up the early chances they gave St Gall’s, Cross, quite wasteful themselves the last day, will not be so generous next Sunday and will punish their opponents for those mistakes. Come Sunday evening there seems to be only one logical outcome instead of “One for Sorrow, it will be a case of Ten for Joy” as Crossmaglen Rangers continue their magnificent Ulster Club Final record by achieving the perfect 10 out of 10.

Magpies Swoop

The Magpies, as they are known, had swooped to pinch victory from the jaws of defeat in admirable fashion against all the odds to reach the final at their second time of asking. Current Kilcoo manager Jim McCorry led his charges to the Frank O’Hare Cup for the tenth time in 2009 after a lapse of 72 years since their last Down title. Victory in Ulster against St Eunan’s was followed by an agonising one point 1-12 to 1-11 semi-final defeat by Loup. Having completed a double triumph when in charge of Mayobridge McCorry achieved the same feat with Kilcoo as goals from Conor Laverty and Feilim McGreevy saw  off his former charges Mayobridge in this year’s Down final for an eleventh title for “The Magpies.” Monaghan champions, minus their talisman Paul Finlay were the first Ulster hurdle for Kilcoo to cross and they did so in style winning 0-13 to 0-7. Former All-Ireland kingpins St Gall’s were the formidable semi-final opponents and led 3-2 after a dour opening half. The Kilcoo cause looked lost when trailing by 3 points; they lost full-back Niall McEvoy to a straight red card with just over 10 minutes to go in the match which rules him out of the final. The response to adversity brought out the best in the Down champions with substitutes Ryan Johnston (0-1) and Sean Devlin (1-0) leading a terrific fight-back which yielded a 1-9 to 0-10 win, and a place in the final against the defending champions.

Kilcoo have a good sprinkling of experienced and youthful players throughout their team with many having donned the county jersey from minor right to senior level. Current Down Senior Conor Laverty and Paul Devlin is the fulcrum of their attack with the Branagan’s Aidan and Niall shoring up a mean defence. Into the mix come U-21 stars Ryan Johnston, Jerome Johnston (Jnr), Darragh O Hanlon and James McClean with the vastly experienced former Down man Anthony Devlin on the edge of the square at number 14.

Paths through Ulster

Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 2-10 Errigal Ciaran (Tyrone) 0-10

Crossmaglen Rangers – K McKeown; P Hughes (0-1), P Kernan, P McKeown; A Kernan (0-1), J Morgan, M Aherne; J Hanratty, D McKenna (1-0); K Carragher, S Kernan (0-1), T Kernan (0-1); J Clarke (1-1), A Cunningham, O McConville (0-5). Subs: M McNamee for Cunningham, K Brennan for Carragher, C Cumiskey for McConville, P Grant for Clarke, R Finnegan for Aherne.

Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 3-11 St Eunan’s (Donegal) 1-7

Crossmaglen Rangers – P Hearty; P Hughes (0-1), P Kernan,P McKeown; A Kernan (1-2), J Morgan, M Aherne; J Hanratty, D McKenna (0-2); T Kernan (0-1), S Kernan, A Cunningham; O McConville (0-4), J Clarke, K Carragher (1-0). Subs: M McNamee for McKenna, R Finnegan for A Kernan, C O’Neill for Aherne, C Cumiskey (0-1) for Cunningham, P Grant (1-0) for McConville.

Kilcoo (Down) 1-9 St Gall’s (Antrim) 0-10

Kilcoo – S Kane; N Branagan, N McEvoy, D Branagan; S O’Hanlon, A Branagan, Gerard McEvoy (0-1); P Greenan, D Kane; J Johnston, P Devlin (0-3), D O’Hanlon (0-3); C Laverty (0-1), A Devlin, Gary McEvoy. Subs: R Johnston (0-1) for P Devlin, S Devlin (1-0) for Gary McEvoy, A McEvoy for Kane, A Devlin for Johnston.

Kilcoo (Down) 0-13 Ballybay (Monaghan) 0-7

Kilcoo – S Kane; N Branagan (0-1), N McEvoy, D Branagan; S O’Hanlon, A Branagan, G McEvoy; P Greenan (0-1), D Kane (0-1); J Johnston (0-4), P Devlin (0-2), D O’Hanlon (0-3); C Laverty, A Devlin, G McEvoy. Subs: R Johnston (0-1) for A Devlin, A McEvoy for J Johnston, J McClean for G McEvoy, S Devlin for D Kane.