Crossmaglen continue to winter well
The Ulster Council would be mad to abandon Clones as their marquee football town. Nowhere does it better. Even on days like this – daylight ready to shut up shop by four o’clock and knuckles raw in the stands, let alone the field of play – St Tiernach’s Park once again proved itself the best GAA ground in the country by a country mile. It helped that Crossmaglen were on stage.
Yet again, the perennial Armagh champions were marvellous yesterday. They float through deepest winter.
“Brick wall,” was the succinct explanation of manager Tony McEntee for Crossmaglen’s second-half lesson in winter football. And they were just that, adorned in their trademark black and amber stripes.
Errigal Ciarán, like so many good teams before them, found Crossmaglen at their most forceful a bewildering experience.
“We just created a platform to create attack after attack and we eventually got a goal to put them away,” said McEntee.
Several Crossmaglen men shone here. There were several excellent Kernans on show but Stephen, feisty and creative around the half forward line, was pick of the family. Jamie Clarke will steal the headlines for the coolness of his first half goal – which originated in a 50-metre on-a-pin pass from Stephen Kernan – and also for several laughably good passes. You could pick out either of the corner backs, Paul Hughes or Paul McKeown or canny veteran Oisín McConville .
But maybe the chief garland ought to be Kevin McKeown, who stepped into goal when Paul Hearty cried off with laryngitis.
Crossmaglen’s shadow ’keeper has only been waiting 14 years for a start in Ulster.
“It’s surprising, isn’t it,” Tony McEntee said with a grin. “Ah, Paul’s hard to shift.”
So are his team. At half-time yesterday, Errigal Ciarán must have quietly fancied themselves. They kicked seven fine scores in the first half and played crisp, smart football.
A wonderful fetch by Cormac McGinley set up Darren Canavan whose confident shot gave Errigal a 0-6 to 0-03 lead after just 19 minutes. The travelling support was in full voice.
And even if Clarke’s goal – he had thundered a shot off the bar in the very first attack of the match – cancelled the lead, Errigal continued in a direct, confident vein.
At half time, a long line of people stood waiting a the tea-stand which is as close as St Tiernach’s comes to corporate hospitality and they could hear the oaths, vows and curses coming from both dressing-rooms. A crowd of 5,689 had shown up and were intrigued by the fare.
Unholy war seemed to beckon. But it never materialised. Boldly the Armagh men marched up on Errigal Ciaran after the restart. They pressed with such ferocity that the Tyrone champions could hardly register an attack for the first 15 minutes. Peter Harte, their brilliant centre-back, was swamped in black and amber every time he tried to mount one of his attacks from deep.
By the time the flame-haired playmaker advertised his skills with a classy point, the contest was all but over.
The McGinley men were crowded out at centre field. Aaron Kernan stepped up as playmaker and Errigal found every pass they tried to make fiercely contested. And eventually they lost their way.
When an Errigal move broke down, David McKenna finished the slick counterattack with the goal that Crossmaglen had come hunting for.
On the sideline, the Errigal mentors knew the day was done. “I am just very proud of our players,” manager Ronan McGuckin said. “They put Errigal Ciarán back on the map this year. We are talking about a team going for its third All-Ireland. They were always going to get a purple patch. We were hoping for the same in the second half and unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
The result taken care of, Crossmaglen could ease up in the last 10 minutes. McConvilles and McNamees and Cumiskeys – names we have come to know over the last 15 years – trotted on and off.
And a hoodoo was broken: Cross’ had never beaten Errigal before yesterday. But Tony McEntee is not a man for hexes. “Totally irrelevant,” he said.
As David McKenna put it: “It didn’t mean anything to me because I never played them before.” The one cloud hanging over their campaign has concerned reports of Jamie Clarke spreading his wings in the spring.
“Jamie’s decision will have no affect on us,” McEntee said, “I don’t know if Jamie has truly made up his mind if he is going to America . . . a lot can change between now and March or April, But as long as we are in the campaign he will be here.”