No added bite needed
USFC Kilcoo v Crossmaglen Rangers Pairc Elser Newry 2.30 Sunday 15th November
If ever there was an Ulster Club fixture that did not need a bit of extra bite added to spice things up it is the meeting of Armagh champions Crossmaglen Rangers and Down champions Kilcoo. GAA supporters will travel from far and wide to be in Newry on Sunday (Kilcoo won the toss for home advantage) because of the fare served up by these clubs when they met in 2012 and 2013 in this competition.
At the Athletic Grounds in 2012 Crossmaglen Rangers were 7 points up inside 5 minutes and despite being reduced to 13 players claimed their tenth Ulster crown 3-9 to 1-9. The aftermath of this game saw Kilcoo player Aidan Branagan banned for 4 months and a Kilcoo supporter getting a lifetime ban for the racial abuse of Rangers Aaron Cunningham. The following year the sides met at Pairc Esler and it ended in a draw after extra-time Kilcoo 2-9 Cross 1-12. A week later at the Athletic Grounds it again needed extra-time to find a winner as Kilcoo advanced 3-10 to 1-8. The two games in 2013 had every ingredient that makes Gaelic football such a terrific spectacle, good football, good scores, hard hitting as both teams gave their all with no quarter asked or given and mutual respect earned after two epic encounters.
Two years down the line, despite winning their fourth Down title in a row and topping the leader board in terms of most Down championships Kilcoo are still in search of that elusive first Ulster title. A facile 3-15 to 0-5 victory over Cavan champions Kingscourt is hardly ideal preparation for a first match with Cross for new Kilcoo manager Paul McIver. Paul took over the Kilcoo reins from Jim McCorry at the start of this season. The Derry man had a hard act to follow; but the managerial transition has been almost seamless so far as he comfortably delivered the supporters first goal of the championship with an emphatic 3-10 to 0-11victory over parish rivals Castlewellan. The form of his forwards, in particular Ryan Johnston (1-2), Paul Devlin (2-4), Conor Laverty (0-7) and Jerome Johnston (2-4) who have accounted for 5-17 of their 6-25 in their last two games, must be particularly pleasing for McIver.
Crossmaglen Rangers were given their hardest test of 2015 in their quarter-final tie with Antrim champions Cargin who gave the Armagh champions a lot of problems, Cargin never got due credit for their efforts as their manager John Brennan revealed after the match that his player Michael McCann had said that he was bitten during the game and it took all the national headlines. The referee’s report on the game between Crossmaglen and Cargin did not mention any biting allegation. It must be just co-incidental that the same manager, then over Slaughtneil back in 2004, hogged all the headlines with claims of being hit with a stone after the drawn game with Cross at Maghera.
It is not clear if the “biting allegation” strenuously denied by Cross is at an end as referee Joe McQuillan’s report is not due to be dealt with by the provincial body until the week after the game with Kilcoo.
Cross managers John McEntee and Oisin McConville will be happy that their charges were put through the mill for the first time this year and given a stern test of just where they were at. Dogged by injuries all year the duo has been forced to field patched up sides that have played in patches. Tellingly, when the stakes were upped in the County Final and the Ulster quarter-final their panel of players were able to step up a few gears and show that their hunger and appetite for further glory was alive and kicking.
Aaron Kernan was back in the team for the Cargin game after missing out on the County Final with injury. Aaron replaced midfielder David McKenna in that win with David hopefully available for selection this Sunday. Incidentally, both Aaron and David along with regular man marking defender James Morgan were absent when Kilcoo beat Cross as was ace attacker Jamie Clarke.
That trio’s inclusion from the outset at Pairc Esler will leave the Down champions with a far different looking Cross side than they played in 2013. The all Branagan full back line of Niall, Aidan and Daryl with half-backs Aaron Branagan , Darragh O’Hanlon and J.J. Mc Loughlan could be up against a new set of Cross forwards as they are able to call on the likes of Rico Kelly, John Murtagh, Oisin O’Neill who were absent when the teams last met.
Midfield could be the key area and if Cross can start with the formidable Johnny Hanratty and David McKenna in the middle their very experienced opposite numbers Paul Greenan and Dominic McEvoy will be fully tested. The vast range of scorers on the Cross team is an added bonus to any side
Discipline will be the key ingredient with the approach of Cavan whistler Mooney crucial for both teams. The game is going to have an edge to it and whether the man in the middle is going to be over fussy or let both sides live on the edge will determine what sort of a spectacle we are in for.
The outcome for me is a win for the Armagh champions because two years down the line they have improved their lot in terms of team selection. Kilcoo will have beneffited from the input of their new manager and what he has brought to the table but Cross have improved in key areas since their last two jousts with the Down champions. Paul Hughes, Paul McKeown and James Morgan are excellent man markers and can stifle the potency of Laverty and Johnson and Devlin. Ranger’s full-back Aidan Rushe, exposed early on against Cargin, recovered very well and is bedding in very nicely in this key position just in front of his goalkeeping Captain Paul Hearty whose kick-out is a very underestimated weapon in Rangers armoury.
Another tight, tense day at the office for Cross players and supporters in the offing but with the chance of an eleventh Ulster final appearance, the prize, the black and amber are taken to triumph over the black and white magpies of Kilcoo.