Good to be back
After a 3 year absence Crossmaglen Rangers are back in the Ulster final following their impressive 0-12 to 0-8 victory over Down champions Kilcoo at a wind and rain swept Pairc Esler, Newry. The 10,000 plus in attendance were deprived of anything near the performances these teams gave in their previous three meetings as the Kilcoo challenge, after a promising start petered out as Cross ran them ragged with a sparkling second half performance.
The bare facts of the game will tell you how comfortable a victory it was for the Armagh champions who actually trailed 3-1 on 19 minutes but despite accumulating 9 wides to their opponents 4 Cross went in level 3-3 at the short whistle, by the time Kilcoo registered their opening point of the second half some 13 minutes in Rangers were home and hosed leading by double scores 8-4. Kilcoo’s misery was compounded by the 53rd dismissal of substitute Dominic McEvoy on a second yellow card by which time they still trailed by double scores 10-5 but still never gave up although numerically outnumbered they managed to outscore the winners 3-2 in those final minutes. The improvement from Cross in the second half can be gauged in that they registered their only wide of the half in added on time. No Kilcoo starting forward scored from play and in registering their lowest championship score of 2015 the Down champions only got 3 points in total from play.
The large attendance saw both management teams make changes to their programmed teams. Cross began without injured midfielder David McKenna and in a move that you would have to predict replaced him in the middle with Aaron Cunningham with super-sub young Oisin O’Neill on from the start in place of the named John Murtagh. Paul McIvor was forced to make 3 changes to his team with Feilim McAreevey, James McClean and Dylan Ward all starting in place of JJ McLoughlin, Dominic McEvoy and Donal Kane. Incidentally all 5 new starting players were replaced with Rangers, more tactical than of necessity when made.
Jerome Johnston and James Laverty both started brightly and looked to have the Rangers defence in all sorts of bother but as the game wore on they became peripheral figures with their markers Morgan and Hughes winning their respective battles. The Down side opened the scoring through their top marksman, centre-back Darragh O’Hanlon (0-5) from a free inside 2 minutes but despite dominating territorially were unable to add to the scoreboard as Mickey McNamee off loaded to Kyle Carragher who opened Rangers account on 9 minutes with an equalising point. The teams swopped a couple of wides apiece in a scoreless 9 minutes until a second O’Hanlon free edged them ahead before a sweeping move was finished off with a Paul Devlin point to make it 3-1. Unfortunately for Kilcoo, Devlin retired with what looked like a knee injury which was a major blow to them as Cross wrestled control of the game once the centre-forward went off. Defender Paul Hughes showed his misfiring forwards where the target was and his other raiding corner-back Paul McKeown got fouled which enabled Tony Kernan level the match going in at half-time. The opening half was split into two periods of dominance but it was who was going to dominated the games third quarter which had supporters talking about during the break after watching a let-down opening 30 minutes.
Spectators had not long to wait to see something special and it came from the youngest player on the field Oisin O’Neill who sublimely with the outside of his boot fired Cross ahead for the first time in the game. Inspired by this point the black and amber swarmed like bees all over their opponents. Stephen Kernan got hauled down with a high challenge but no black card as his brother Aaron doubled his teams lead. Third brother Tony (who also had a quiet opening half) was a different second half animal leading by example pointing a free to put a green flag between them. On the ropes Kilcoo had a major let off when a great move ended with a Rico Kelly shot, with goalkeeper Stephen Kane sprawling on the ground, coming back off the upright into the grateful keepers hands as he looked outside his safety zone but no free awarded.
Still Cross piled on the pressure with Tony picking out Carragher who kicked his second point of the afternoon. Kilcoo had lost all their shape and discipline as substitute midfielder Dominic McEvoy picked up a yellow card enabling Aaron Kernan to point Cross into an 8-3 lead on 40 minutes.
Darragh O’Hanlon was the lone Kilcoo figure who was up to the battle on the day tried to spark the comeback with a burst forward and a second point from play for his team that ended a 27 minute barren spell since their last score. The changes were coming thick and fast with one of the changes Martin Devlin pointing for Kilcoo but a super run down the sideline by Aaron Kernan before cutting inside to fist a terrific point restored the 4 point cushion. Johnny Hanratty, Jerome Johnston, Aaron Kernan all got yellow cards before a second one for McEvoy saw them reduced to 14. A hand trip by Cross full back Aidan Rushe who had looked very solid drew a Black card from which O’Hanlon left just a score between the teams 10-7. But before the loss of the full back could be tested a terrific punch tackle on the ball by Aaron Kernan broke up a menacing Kilcoo move and set up the insurance point for Cross as he offloaded to substitute Jamie Clarke who in turn placed the hard working Rico Kelly for a deserved point with 2 minutes left on the clock. A minute later it was game set and match as McKeown and sub Finnegan combined to enable Kyle Carragher grab his third point of the day. It was not until deep into added on time that Jerome Johnston opened his account with a pointed free.
The facile quarter final victory over Kingscourt, the few injuries would not have helped the Kilcoo cause, but on the day their surprisingly unaccustomed rather defensive approach to the game was what would cost them. Kilcoo played their best football going backwards holding onto possession but lacked penetration upfront. Cross on the other hand like in the Cargin game saw management duo of Oisin McConville and John McEntee again work the oracle with a sizzling second half performance. The Armagh champions will feel good to be back to where they feel that they belong. With Jamie Clarke back on board and David McKenna, Danny O Callaghan and Callium Cumiskey with a fortnight more to recover more fitness together with an multi- talented bench all looking for starting places there will be some lively training sessions for Oisin and Tony to supervise before finalising their starting final 15.
On November 29 probably at the same venue Pairc Esler Crossmaglen Rangers will contest Ulster Final number 11 with the previous 10 won. Opposition will be provided by Monaghan champions Scotstown who beat Trillick (Tyrone) 2-9 to 2-7 to reach their first final since 1989. Scotstown though have had their hands on the Seamus McFerran Cup 4 times following a 3-in-a-row 1978, 1979, 1980 and a last win in 1989.
Crossmaglen: P Hearty; P Hughes (0-1), A Rushe, P McKeown; A Kernan (0-3), M Aherne, J Morgan; J Hanratty, A Cunningham; M McNamee, S Kernan, T Kernan (0-3); O O’Neill (0-1), R Kelly (0-1), K Carragher (0-3). Subs: K Brennan for O’Neill (48), J Murtagh for Cunningham (50), J Clarke for McNamee (56), S Finnegan for Rushe (BC, 58), C Cumiskey for Carragher (60).
Kilcoo: S Kane; N Branagan, Aidan Branagan, D Branagan; Aaron Branagan, D O’Hanlon (0-5), R Johnston (0-1); F McGreevy, J McClean; A Morgan, P Devlin, D Ward; J Johnston (0-1), P Greenan, C Laverty. Subs: M Devlin (0-1) for P Devlin (24), D McEvoy for McGreevy (35), S O’Hanlon for McClean (46), Gerard McEvoy for Ward (56), Gary McEvoy for Morgan (58).
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan).