More than a club: the extraordinary dominance of the side from south Armagh
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.”
If anything, the chat deepened his conviction about what needs to happen if other clubs are to beat Crossmaglen: the Armagh club must play poorly for the other team to win.
“When we played them in November, I was hoping they wouldn’t be at it – sometimes they can work up a big lead and switch off and get a bit sloppy and you might catch them that way. But it didn’t happen.”
Devenney missed the chance to play against Crossmaglen when his club met them five years ago; he had punctured a lung against the Tyrone champions Clonoe in the previous round. The Donegal champions were peaking then and engineered a good lead in a first half during which they produced several goal chances.
“Cross were at sixes and sevens until half-time. Then they came back out and just turned the screw. They reminded me of a rugby team that day. They just came at us in wave after wave and they were so powerful that the only way to stop them was to foul.”
Last year, Garrycastle drew with them in the All-Ireland final only to find themselves decimated in the replay.
This year, Crossmaglen retained their Ulster title in steady rather than spectacular fashion but rarely looked vulnerable. They have produced several national stars during their extended reign; Jamie Clarke is the latest. Nonetheless, the ability of a modest market town to keep on producing the best club teams in Ireland has become a marvel.
A decade of nothing
But it wasn’t always so. Donal Murtagh was 17 when he made his debut for the town team in 1986, when they won a surprise championship out of the blue. He played for the next decade without winning a thing. Then he played for a further 10 years at full back and won ten Armagh championships, three Ulster and three All-Ireland medals. When he finished playing, he managed the side.
“Nobody trained,” was the brief explanation he gave for the decade-long gap in titles between 1986-96.
“About seven or eight of us did train all year around,” he told this newspaper the week before the All-Ireland club final of 2007 – which Crossmaglen duly won. “But there would be excuses from elsewhere. Then about six weeks before the championship there would be a big panic and a meeting called.”
It was like many clubs in Ireland, in other words. During that period, something changed. Murtagh’s career is emblematic of the attitude that has come to define Crossmaglen.
He is among the very best of Armagh footballers never to have played a senior championship match for the county. He was feted as a young player and made the underage grades comfortably enough and was called into the senior squad, but he found balancing club and county too difficult. His preference lay with playing club ball.
When you watch the current Crossmaglen team in full flow, most of those who aren’t playing intercounty football look as if they would be at home in that environment. Players with extravagant talent such as Clarke will always get selected but there is a sense that, for some of the others, playing for Cross was so rewarding and demanding that there was no time for anything else.
“I just think they are at the stage where they have a group of guys in their late 20s and early 30s who are not really county players but are phenomenal club players,” Devenney says.
St Brigid’s test
Today, Crossmaglen will meet St Brigid’s again, a club whose modern history has been defined by Crossmaglen’s excellence. The Roscommon side are a phenomenon in their own right and are formidably consistent in the province. But they lost the All-Ireland semi-finals of 2007 and 2011 to the Armagh men.
“It was just a scattered game, we did not get into our rhythm at any stage and yet we still stayed close enough to them,” St Brigid’s Ian Kilbride remembers of that last encounter.
“We gained confidence from that, the game flew by a lot of players and we were still within touching distance of them. They got goals at crucial times but we never put the head down, we kept on trying and we kept on plugging away and had we got a couple of scores at crucial times, like they did, it might have been different.”
There was nothing about that game to convince the St Brigid’s team they couldn’t beat Crossmaglen. Similarly, the Armagh men struggled for periods against Garrycastle in last year’s showpiece. There are reasons for hope even as Crossmaglen move towards another St Patrick’s Day appearance. Kevin McStay, the St Brigid’s manager, concedes that Crossmaglen are “outrageous champions” but feels his side have acquired a level of experience and confidence that can match them.
“That is not underestimating the team that we are facing; they are a great, great team. But no matter how great a champion you are, the day comes when it ends. We are hugely respectful of them because they have done all the things we would love to have done but we are not going to step back from this.”
However, Crossmaglen have shown no inclination to leave the stage. The stakes have never been higher for the Armagh men as they attempt to close in on a staggering third All-Ireland in a row. The atmosphere in Mullingar today should be special. Nobody is going to discount St Brigid’s but the day is long past when people bet against Crossmaglen.
They just break your heart. Ask anyone in Armagh.