Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Clontibret withstand Cross comeback

A slow start, a total of 13 wides, 2 points from very debatable frees awarded against them in minutes 47 & 58, plus losing out in the tactical battle, were the main contributary factors which saw Crossmaglen Rangers crash out of Ulster to Clontibret O’ Neill’s at the Athletic Grounds, by the minimum margin 0-10 to 0-9, in what were very tough playing conditions.

A water laden surface and a 15-minute delayed start because of extra-time in the first match of the double header must have added to what had to be an evening of mixed feelings for Crossmaglen legend John McEntee as he prepared his charges for this eagerly awaited AIB Ulster club SFC quarter-final. The Clontibret management team gave a vote of confidence to the starting 15 which comfortably took care of the Scotstown challenge in the Monaghan County Final.

Cross opt for experience

Rather surprisingly Crossmaglen Rangers management team opted for change, bringing in 3 very experienced players, one in defence and two in attack. Paul McKeown came into defence in place of the injured Garvan Carragher. Forwards Johnny McKeever and Mel Boyce were replaced by Johnny Hanratty and Kyle Carragher who had impressed off the bench when introduced in the County final. In what was for Cross a very substandard first half with no one really playing well, the yellow cards picked up by both McKeown & Hanratty must have contributed to their non appearance for the second half replaced by Padraig Stuttard and Tony Kernan. McKeever and Boyce were both introduced inside the last quarter with Cross still chasing the game.

It was always going to be interesting to see how John would set out his Clontibret side to take on Cross and it was not long into the match that we had that insight. Employing a very crowded between the “two forties” approach to nullifying the Cross kicking game and a composed keep ball approach along with Dessie Moan, Killian Lavelle, Michael P O’Dowd, Pauric Boyle and skipper Brian Greenan constantly running at the Rangers defence, Clontibret dominated the first half, fully deserving their 0-7 to 0-3 half-time lead.

Crossmaglen’s Paul McKeown and Clontibret’s Brian Greenan in an Aerial battle for the ball

The more experienced Monaghan champions made it count in every sense of the word in the opening quarter. With Cross slower to settle than in the County final, their first point from play and only their second of the opening half did not arrive until the 26th minute which made the score 6-2. Dangerman Conor McManus (well policed in open play by Christopher Crowley) who finished the game’s top marksman with 0-6 (5 frees) opened the scoring on 2 minutes with a free and 2 minutes later gathered a loose ball before turning and firing over from play to double the lead. 

Paul McKeown picked up the game’s first yellow before Pauric Boyle raced through the Cross defence to stretch the lead to 3 points. Cian McConville off the upright and wide and McManus traded wides before Boyle added his second point to end a scoreless eight-minute spell. A foul on McConville enabled skipper Aaron Kernan to open the Cross account on the quarter hour but it would be 11 more minutes before they would trouble the scoreboard again. O Dowd burst through the Cross defence opting to take his point instead of a goal chance and on 24 minutes McManus, from a free, made it 6-1. In the first glimpse of a cohesive Cross move Kyle Carragher pointed following good work by Colin O’Connor but Clontibret responded as O’Dowd again running at the defence, fired over his second point of the half through a crowd of players. After recording their seventh wide of the half, Rian O’Neill from play grabbed his team’s third point and last score of the half, to leave Rangers only a rather flattering 4 points in arrears at the short whistle 0-7 to 0-3.

Clontibret Manager John McEntee

More intensity and urgency

Akin to their last outing against Ballymacnab, Cross would need to bring a lot more intensity and urgency to their play in the second half. The half-time substitutes were the first steps towards change Cross had made to try and get a foothold in the game. Midfielder Lavell once again won the throw-in and was fouled but it came to nothing. Cross attacked from the back with Rico finding Aaron who in turn gave the ball to the advancing Cumiskey who offloaded to Oisin O’Neill who opened the second half scoring with Rangers best move of the game. When Tony Kernan announced his introduction with a sublime long range point the real Cross were beginning to show themselves as the lead was halved 4 minutes after the re-start. Amazingly the fast start faded as the elementary mistakes, bad options, poor shooting contributed to 12 minutes without a score. The highlight of those 12 minutes was a super save by Cross keeper Tiernan McConville when one on one with McManus and from that save Cian McConville blazing a Cross goal chance well wide of the upright.

Crossmaglen manager, Kieran Donnelly, pictured as game comes to a close.

On 46 minutes Paul Hughes up in attack was fouled with Rian coolly slotting over the free to make it a one-point game 7-6. A minute later Tyrone referee Sean Hurson harshly penalised Rico for what looked like a brilliant piece of defending and McManus did not look the gift horse in the mouth to double their lead. With 7 minutes left on the clock McManus from a free following a foul on himself put a green flag between the sides. A foul on Tony Kernan enabled Rian to peg the lead back to 2 points as Cross piled on the pressure but could not breech the Clontibret defence. One sensed that it might not be Rangers night as Clontibret Goalkeeper Darren McDonnell three times elected to punch the high ball in away as Cross piled on the pressure looking for the goal but each time the ball wound up safely in the hands of a yellow clad defender. Credit though to the winners who found time to attack despite all the Cross pressure and in one such surge forward Paul Hughes was very harshly adjudged to have fouled, as the grateful McManus completed his teams scoring with his third pointed free of the half. Three points down entering 4 minutes of added on time Cross kept plugging away with an Oisin O’Neill pointed free leaving them seeking a match winning goal. Cross fashioned a half goal chance as Paul Hughes’ rising shot cleared the crossbar for a point followed by the full-time whistle from the kick-out. 

 Twice before in the Ulster championship Clontibret have been on the wrong side of one-point defeats at the hands of Cross, they will feel that this time around it is they who deserved the victory. John McEntee said coming into this game it was a win win situation for him and so it has panned out. A one-point game in very tough testing conditions which was played in a very sporting manner he saw his charges gain early control and then show the resilience and fortitude to withstand a traditional Cross comeback. John will be delighted that his team limited Cross to just 5 points from play (they only managed the same themselves from play) and will be worried that his team failed to score from play in the second half. Saying that he has just seen his team knock-out the competition heavyweights to follow up their County title and he, more than anyone, knows the value of gaining momentum in this competition carries.

 Unfortunately for Cross winning a County title given their pedigree is not enough by their high standards. Overall this is a relatively young team and their Ulster experiences over the last two years can only help them learn and develop. Cross were a little naïve against Clontibret trying to do everything at 100 miles an hour and on reflection will look upon this as one that got away from them. The on-field presence of natural leaders and calming influences used to be a given in great Cross teams, they are only developing in the present one.

Crossmaglen’s Aaron Kernan wins the ball in front of Clontibret’s Brian Greenan and seeks to lay it off to Kyle Carragher

 Crossmaglen Rangers: Tiernan McConville; Paul Hughes (0-1), Rico Kelly, Paul McKeown; Aaron Kernan (0-1), Callum Cumiskey, Christopher Crowley; Stephen Morris, Alan Farrelly; Johnny Hanratty, Oisin O’Neill (0-2), Colin O’Connor; Cian McConville, Rian O’Neill (0-3), Kyle Carragher (0-1). Subs: Tony Kernan (0-1) for Hanratty (HT), Padraig Stuttard for McKeown (HT), Mel Boyce for Farrelly (43), Johnny McKeever for O’Connor (50)

Clontibret O Neill’s: Darren McDonnell; Conor Doyle, Conor Boyle, Liam Savage; Jack Gormley, Dessie Mone, Colum Greenan; Francis Hughes, Killian Lavelle; David Savage, Michael P O’Dowd (0-2), Brian Greenan; Pauric Boyle (0-2), Vinnie Corey, Conor McManus (0-6). Subs: Darragh Hughes for P Boyle (48), Kiernan Greenan for Hughes (60), Eoin McGuigan for Savage (60)