More than a club: the extraordinary dominance of the side from south Armagh
Crossmaglen Rangers' Jamie Clarke scores a goal against St Brigid's of Roscommon during the 2011 All-Ireland senior club championship final at Croke Park.
Oisín McConville playing for Crossmaglen in 1996, the first year of a remarkable run of 16 out of 17 county titles. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
How does a modest market town in Ulster continue to produce the best club sides in Ireland, asks KEITH DUGGAN
On the Tuesday night after Armagh won its first and (to date) only All-Ireland title, club training took place in Crossmaglen as usual. The entire county was enjoying a rare wave of euphoria and none of the usual rules applied.
So none of Crossmaglen’s county players were expected to attend but nobody was that surprised when, one by one, Oisín McConville, the McEntee twins, John Donaldson and Francie Bellew ambled into the dressing room anyhow. It was just over 48 hours since they had been on the field in Croke Park.
“We are lucky. Most places have county players who happen to play for the club,” explained Oliver Shortt, who was managing the club then. “Here we have club players who happen to play for the county.”
The story offers some small explanation for the extraordinary dominance and consistency of the south Armagh club.
People have long since given up predicting when their streak of county championship wins would end (16 out of 17 titles since 1996); when their willingness to plough through the winter campaigns of Ulster and Ireland would weaken and when Crossmaglen would become ordinary again.
“I have seen them play so much doing radio commentary with the BBC,” says Brendan Devenney. “And being honest, I have become a fan.”
Devenney managed his club, St Eunan’s, against the Armagh champions in the Ulster club quarter-final last November. He approached the match with guarded optimism at best. If he doesn’t believe Crossmaglen are unbeatable, then all evidence suggests they are very close to it.
Becoming a fan
Not so long ago, he attended a do for Oisín McConville in Armagh. In his days playing for Donegal he detested the Armagh style and philosophy but he has come to know a few of them in recent years. He fell into conversation with Tony McEntee and just listened to the Cross’ manager talking about their training and playing philosophy and the general approach to the game.
“Most teams go through cycles. Even look at the current panic about Kerry. But Cross just seem to keep going. I think a key to club football is that you want players who are just below county standard. Really accomplished footballers but into playing with the club rather than the county. And Gaelic football is still very reliant on physicality. You can see that some county teams have really stepped it up, Donegal being the obvious example.
“At club level, you don’t have time to train at that gym level. But some teams are naturally stronger and Cross have powerful men. They can batter teams and that is very wearying. Even their smaller men are very tough. And I am sure that goes back to training . . . I’ll bet their training games are harder than a lot of the games they play. And then, they are just natural ball players. So many teams go for grids and defensive systems . . . Crossmaglen still use the long ball and they exploit space and attack.”