Crossmaglen Rangers Revamp Rewarded
● UCSFC Saturday 3rd November at The Athletic Grounds 7pm – Crossmaglen Rangers v Coalisland Fianna
Not since winning their eleventh title with a 2-17 to 2-12 win over Scotstown have Crossmaglen Rangers been involved in the Ulster Senior Club Football Championship.
Losing out on 2 Armagh titles, following a run which saw 19 titles collected in a 20 year spell was viewed by many as Cross in decline such was their supremacy. Following semi-final championship defeats to St Pat’s (2016) & Maghery (2017) Cross were not fancied to be anything special in 2018 but here they are back in the Ulster Championship following a 0-24 to 1-15 Armagh final win over Ballymacnab, in one of the best football matches seen in the County for many a long year.
It may have been only 3 years since Cross beat Armagh Harps 2-22 to 0-10 in their last final appearance but only a half dozen players who started that final were on the starting 15 against Ballymacnab, Paul Hughes, James Morgan, Johnny Hanratty, Mickey McNamee, Rico Kelly and Kyle Carragher were the players who started both games. So Crossmaglen Rangers new management team for 2018 Kieran Donnelly, Donal Murtagh, Francis Fitzpatrick and Miceal Moley have worked the oracle getting the right blend between seasoned campaigners and youthful stars playing a refreshing brand of attacking football into the bargain. The management quartet have juggled with injuries all year through an indifferent league programme (which even saw goalkeeper Paul Hearty come out of retirement for four games) and then recorded a brace of 1 point victories over Silverbridge and Madden in the championship. A convincing home win over Clann Eireann kick started the Cross Championship charge which saw Armagh Harps, St Pat’s and Ballymacnab put to the sword as Cross claimed their 44th. Armagh Senior title.
Used substitutes from 2015 Oisin O’Neill and Garvan Carragher started against Ballymacnab with Rangers most Senior current player Aaron Kernan captaining the team which was bolstered by 6 players who were picking up their first Senior Championship Medal, goalkeeper Jamie McEvoy, full-back Alan Farrelly, midfielder Stephen Morris and forwards Johnny McKeever, Padraig Stuttard and Rian O’Neill.
As if the blend of experience and youth starting was not enough Cross were able to combine the same from the bench as David McKenna, Callum Cumiskey, Aidan Rushe, Mel Boyce were used along with star player from Rangers minor championship win Cian McConville who contributes two great points from play. Spoiled for choice Cross management lost regular corner-back Aaron Smylie very early to injury in the semi-final and can be further boosted if he and long term injuries to Tony Kernan and Paul McKeown improve to be available for selection.
Coalisland were well down the listings as potential County Champions before a ball was kicked. Their ranking was helped by a dreadful start to their league campaign in which they lost their opening 5 matches and then their manager. When looking for a new manager Coalisland went back to the tried and tested as they appointed former Tyrone midfielder Damian O’Hagan to take charge and Damian was at the helm for the club’s last County title back in 2010. Damian immediately installed Peter Herron as his assistant. A final league win just before the start of the championship enabled Coalisland to avoid relegation.
Dromore were the first round championship opponents at Pomeroy and a place in the quarter-finals was booked with the minimum to spare 0-12 to 1-11 and a week later Errigal Ciaran were ousted 0-15 to 2-7 and Coalisland were into the last four having dumped out the two titles favourites one after the other. Dungannon was the venue and Edendork St Malachy’s were the opposition and again another very close run affair was settled by a one point victory 0-13 to 1-11.
On the same day as Cross saw off Ballymacnab Coalisland claimed their tenth Tyrone title with a 2-11 to 1-7 win over Killyclogher.
It was sweet revenge for Coalisland as they crashed to a 0-20 to 0-6 replay defeat to Killyclogher two years previously. Coalisland have shown all the qualities of champions belying their underdog status showing plenty of guts, determination and quality football and will be full of confidence even though they will once again be the underdogs for next Saturday evening.
If Cross were able to spring their minor star Cian McConville from the bench to score two terrific points Coalisland were able to do the same as youngster Tiarnan Quinn did likewise in the Tyrone final to put the outcome of the game to bed.
Like Cross manager O’Hagan has gelled youth with experience to produce a winning formula with his own son Cormac most prominent in a potent attack that came to life in the second half of the final. Killyclogher led 1-4 to 0-5 at the short whistle as Coalisland failed to score from play in that opening half. It was second half goals from Paddy McNeice and Peter McGahan in a 2 minute spell 42 & 44 minutes, both from high lofted balls into the square, that turned the tide in favour of the eventual winners Coalisland who then cruised to a flattering 7 point victory.
Tyrone’s famed strength and conditioning coach and former county midfielder Peter Donnelly answered the call to fill the clubs goalkeeping crisis citing how could you refuse manager Damian who does not take no for an answer. Peter repaid his managers faith in him over the course of the last 4 championship outings and a few smart first half saves kept his team in the mix as opponents Killyclogher proved to be a handful. Like his Cross counterpart McEvoy, Donnelly’s ball delivery from kick-outs and open play has been very impressive for his team.
Padraig Hampsey (Full-back), Michael McKernan (Capt and center half-back) and top scorer with 1-3 in the County final Paddy McNeice are regarded as the key Coalisland players. There is a lot more to them than those 3 players. Hampsey’s younger brother Eoghan did a terrific man marking job on Mark Bradley the last day out. Peter Herron is another emerging star who combines his defensive duties very well with his attacking flair with number 5 Michael McKernan adding pace and penetration from the opposite end. Rangers defence, which was easily opened up in the first half will have to be very disciplined given the place-kicking expertise of Paddy McNeice and Cormac O’Hagan.
The contrast in styles of play between Cross and Coalisland makes it very interesting to see how things will pan out come Saturday night. The swashbuckling, all out attacking man to man quick slick football which Cross produce up against the possession ball holding, counter attacking from defense approach of their opponents.
Ulster Club football often acts as a release valve for clubs, who with the monkey off their back, having achieved their goal, a County Title approach the early rounds of this competition free of pressure and expectations and are then able to produce their absolute best.
History has shown that Crossmaglen Rangers are masters of this art as they go in seek of a twelfth crown in 23 years. Amazingly Errigal Ciaran 1993 & 2002 are the only Red Hand Club to have lifted the Seamus McFerran Cup. In 2010 Coalisland’s Ulster run was ended at the semi-final stage by Donegal’s Naomh Conaill 1-10 to 1-9 who in turn were beaten in the final by Cross 2-9 to 0-10.
Coalisland have produced strong finishes in all their championship games to date but there will need to be at it from the “get go “ in order to prevent Cross from getting up a head of steam. With a half dozen Cross players pocketing their first Senior championship medal on foot of a 24 point winning haul of which 22 of those scores came from open play Rangers confidence will be high ahead of this Athletic Grounds encounter with the Tyrone champions.
Viewing the opening half of the Armagh final will give Coleraine a boost but the second half turnaround from Cross will show them the enormity of the tasks that they face. With established seasoned players like Aaron Kernan, Kyle Carragher, Mickey McNamee and my Ballymacnab Man of the Match Johnny Hanratty all like a fine wine maturing with age and producing vintage performances coupled with the pressure off the younger brigade of players now that they have played and delivered a title for the club it is very hard to see anything other than Cross reaching the semi-finals. The passage though, just like in the County Final will have to be earned as they will know full well from previous club encounters that the intense rivalry between Armagh and Tyrone adds extra tension to the occasion.
Eleven points in each half, all from play on their last outing indicates just how up against it the Coalisland defenders will be on Saturday. Contrast that to no scores from play in the opening half against Killyclogher shows clearly where this match can be won and lost.
Cross look to have too much in hand not to be able to overcome Coalisland and enhance their outright bookies favourites tag by reaching the last 4.