Crossmaglen quickly into their stride
Crossmaglen 3-9 Kilcoo 1-9:There are not many reliable guides to beating Crossmaglen Rangers in circulation. Any there are would presumably urge opponents not to find themselves 2-1 to zero behind within five minutes of the throw-in.
But such was the daunting and ultimately impossible task Down champions Kilcoo gave themselves in yesterday’s AIB Ulster football final in Armagh’s Athletic Grounds before an attendance of 8,264.
Yet the big surprise was that the match didn’t run smoothly for the All-Ireland champions from then on despite the fast start.
The match became scrappy and in the niggling exchanges Crossmaglen lost two players to red cards – replacement Michael McNamee on a straight red in the 46th minute for striking and Jamie Clarke, probably more sinned against than sinning, for a second yellow in the last minute.
The outsiders could wistfully ponder the remainder of the match when they outscored their formidable opponents by 1-9 to 1-8 and a second half when they actually pulled to within a score as an indicator of what might have been.
But the shock and awe opening may have disorientated Cross’ as well as their opponents.
“Maybe we started doing our own thing,” said Aaron Kernan afterwards. “We started taking the harder option, take the extra touch or whatever and suddenly the opposition are right back in the game.
“But give credit to Kilcoo – they made things very hard for us once they settled down. They started using the running game and it worked for them. Hopefully, we’ll learn from this and be a better team for it.”
Exposed to the familiar arsenal of Cross’s high-pressure, quick, long-kicking game, Kilcoo buckled early.
The opening blitz came between the third and fifth minutes, as firstly Stephen Kernan was tripped running onto a through-ball and Oisín McConville dispatched the penalty.
This was followed within 60 seconds by Tony Kernan hanging a long ball down on the Kilcoo goal and his brother Aaron moving onto the break to drive in the second gaol.
Tony Kernan then added a point and not to be outdone by the family productivity, full back, Paul, some minutes later put in a terrific block on Gary McEvoy at the other end.
Cross were scoring almost at will, winning possession, running in support and making sure that the best-placed player was given the ball.
Kyle Carragher had a goal chance in the 17th minute but took too long deliberating how to beat Stephen Kane and had to settle for a point.
Kilcoo didn’t score from play until the second half and trailed by nine at the break.
Having drifted 10 points behind immediately after the break, Kilcoo improbably worked their way back into the match.
Maybe Cross became careless but Kilcoo’s work-rate intensified and their defence began to cut the previously damaging through balls.
Donal Kane’s 34th minute point was their first from play and triggered a run of 1-4 without reply.
Paul Devlin and Darragh O’Hanlon kicked the frees and the champions struggled to clear their lines, as the Down champions managed to thread together their running and short-passing game.
The goal came in the 41st minute when Tony Devlin, having started at centrefield but by now operating at centre forward, got in behind the defence and had the strength to hold off a tackle and get his shot away into the net.
McNamee’s dismissal was followed immediately by Darragh O’Hanlon kicking a free to reduce the margin to a goal – 1-7 to 2-7.
But as if regenerated by the scale of the growing challenge now facing them, Crossmaglen dug in and inspired by a point from Martin Aherne, who had a fine match especially in the closing stages, breaking up the field to support the attack, they began to force their way back into the match.
It was a dispossession by Aherne that launched the decisive blow on the hour. It left him clear with Kilcoo pouring into attack and his pass to the unmarked McConville allowed the veteran of all 10 of the club’s provincial successes to draw the goalkeeper and leave replacement Kyle Brennan – on the field less than a minute – with an empty net to palm home the third goal.
Victory gave the south Armagh club a 10th provincial title in 17 seasons and leaves them strongly placed to push for an unprecedented third successive All-Ireland in the spring.
CROSSMAGLEN RANGERS: P Hearty; P Hughes, P Kernan, P McKeown; A Kernan (1-1, point a free), J Morgan, M Aherne (0-1); J Hanratty, D McKenna (capt); K Carragher (0-1), S Kernan (0-2), T Kernan (0-1); J Clarke, A Cunningham (0-1), O McConville (1-2, penalty and two frees). Subs: M McNamee for S Kernan (28 mins), D O’Callaghan for P Kernan (46 mins), C Cumiskey for Carragher (54 mins), K Brennan (1-0) for Cunningham (59 mins), R Finnegan for Hughes (60 mins). KILCOO: S Kane; N Branagan, D Branagan, S O’Hanlon; D O’Hanlon (0-4, three frees), A Branagan, G McEvoy; P Greenan, A Devlin (1-0); R Johnston (0-1), P Devlin (0-3, frees), D Kane (0-1); J Johnston, C Laverty, G McEvoy (capt.). Subs: F McGreevy for J Johsnton (54 mins), J McClean for A Devlin (54 mins), S Devlin for Kane (59 mins). Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).