Clontibret the ultimate test for Cross?
2019 USFC Crossmaglen Rangers v Clontibret O’Neill’s Saturday 2nd November in Athletic Grounds at 7pm
With 45 Armagh, 6 All-Ireland and 11 Ulster titles in the trophy cabinet it would be fair to say that Crossmaglen Rangers have done it all and worn the T-shirt but such is sport there are always new challenges on the horizon. Despite all Cross successes, Clontibret O’Neill’s at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday night at 7pm in the Ulster Senior Club quarter-final will provide them with their ultimate test.
Youngsters growing up playing football in many places have aspirations of being a Messi or Ronaldo, around Cross they aspire to being an Oisin McConville, Aaron Kernan, Paul Hearty , one of the twins Tony & John McEntee or any of their own favourite club hero who has donned the Black & Amber with distinction. On Saturday night the younger generation of Cross players will come face to face with one of the idols in very different circumstances as he will be plotting their defeat as manager of Monaghan champions Clontibret. Cross legend John McEntee, both as a player and successful manager, has already guided his charges to a championship upset as they denied Scotstown a fifth title in a row with a 1-14 to 0-11 victory.
In all of their previous football glory Cross Rangers now face what could be their ultimate test as one from their own “inner sanctum” who knows how and what makes them tick provides a more Psychological other than football advantage to proceedings. Just how big an impact this has will be gauged on Saturday night when we see how the match ups and team tactics plus the result is dissected and digested.
O’NEILL’S POWER PAST SCOTSTOWN
Champions back in 2014 when they beat Scotstown Clontibret were rank outsiders to repeat that feat in 2019 when the both contested the Greenfields Monaghan Championship Final to see who would lift the Mick Duffy Cup. But from the off it was clear that the team seeking 5 in a row were in big trouble as their opponents were dominant all over the field. Conor McManus hit five first-half points to help his team into a sizable 0-9 to 0-3 half-time lead. The O’Neill’s turned that interval lead into a nine-point cushion after the restart before the champions mounted a comeback. After Scotstown battled back to trail by four, McManus turned provider to set up sub Ryan McGuigan’s 57th minute goal to put the result beyond doubt leaving Clontibret comfortable 1-14 to 0-11 winners.
Whilst Former Footballer of the Year and All-Star Conor McManus is the main man for Clontibret he has plenty of help from seasoned Monaghan campaigners Vinney Corey, Dessie Moan and Conor Boyle. Last year Clontibret won their last two league matches to preserve their Senior status, now they enter the Ulster Club Championship facing the most successful team in the competition which says a lot for their momentum and change in attitude and perspective.
On their last venture in Ulster back in 2014 Clontibret went to Newry and defeated Kilcoo 1-9 to 0-11 before losing out in the semi-final to Slaughtneil 1-9 to 0-7 who went on to win Ulster and lose the All-Ireland final to Corofin (Galway).
Clontibret from 1 to 15 were excellent as a team against Scotstown and ended up with 9 different scorers on the day and a defence that did not cough up too many goal chances. Goalkeeper Darren McDonnell was pin point with his deliveries with his number 3 Conor Boyle rock solid in front of him. Team captain Brian Greenan lines out at half forward alongside McManus and is a powerful worker for his team. Vinny Corey at full forward as always will prove a handful for anyone.
CROSS DEFENSIVE FRAILTY EXPOSED
Crossmaglen Rangers retention of their Armagh title was completed without too much fuss or bother although 10 minutes into the second half of the County Final it did not look like that, before Cross ran out flattering 9 point victors. Sporting 5 changes in 2019 final from their starting 15 from the previous year has seen Cross benefit from the infusion of some new young blood.
As the 1-9 without reply answer to Ballymacnab’s second County Final goal which gave them a 4 point lead showed that as an attacking force Rangers can be lethal. But the manner of that second goal and several passages of the defensive exploits of Cross in the final showed that the defensive frailties exposed in this championship by Ghaoth Dobhair (who bagged 4 goals on their way to a 4-11 to 0-16 win) still exists. Cross have conceded 7 goals in their 6 Armagh championship games but to counteract that they have scored 13 goals which will bother Clontibret. The amount of space left between the two Cross defensive lines has been their main source of concern with the full back line exposed to the in front ball delivery into the space left in front of them.
As the quality of the opponent improves Cross, especially early on on games, will have to revert to the old way that the first job of a defender is to defend and not be so gung ho all out attack from the throw-in. Clontibret were out of the traps early and tellingly against Scotstown and will be looking for more of the same on Saturday night.
Rangers first half tactics against Ballymacnab will leave management with a bit to ponder as it was not until they got up close and personal as is the norm for Cross that they made life a lot easier for themselves and their football flowed.
How will Cross management deal with the obvious McManus threat will be interesting, will they man mark or just play the game and see how it evolves. Callum Cumiskey has impressed at number 6 both in a defensive and attacking role as has Paul Hughes. Defensive newcomer Chris Crowley (possibly the first Kerryman to win an Armagh SFC medal?) has also acquitted himself well and is a tenacious marker. Midfielders Alan Farrelly and Stephen Morris took time to get going the last day out but like their fellow teammates came good when it mattered. Five of the Cross starting sextet of forwards featured on the scoreboard which is always a good sign. Colin O’Connor and Cian McConville are getting better as they get more game time under their belts and both carry that all-important goal threat.
CROSS TO ADVANCE
Clontibret management will know that they have a lot of thinking to do to get the better of this formidable Cross outfit that have potential match winners all over the park. The O’Neill brothers Rian and Oisin will occupy a lot of their time as they try to find a way to curtail them. The tactical take from both managements will be crucial to the outcome.
The ace in the hold for the Armagh standard bearers is their bench if all is not going to plan. The introduction of Kyle Carragher against the ‘Nab reaped huge benefits and he could be in line for a start such was his impact from the bench. What an experienced trio made a cameo appearance later on in the final as Tony Kernan, Johnny Hanratty and Stephen Finnegan saw some action. Throw a fit again Paul McKeown and it not hard to see why Cross are the favourites to win a twelfth Ulster title.
Twelve months ago after winning back the Armagh championship Cross began their Ulster campaigh with a 0-12 to 0-10 win over Coalisland at the Athletic Grounds. This time around I expect another very close run affair with Clontibret giving Cross a stern test which will be passed but not without a telling influnce from their formidable subs bench.