St Brigid's day leaves Cross' broken
St Brigid’s 2-7 Crossmaglen 1-9:Tony McEntee walked out of the Crossmaglen dressing room like a man trying to slip unnoticed out of a courthouse side-door. Hood up to cover his face, phone pressed hard against his cheek, he was past us almost before we noticed.
He headed out to where the Cross’ team bus was parked and strolled on around the corner to stand on his own away from the crowd. His face was ghost white, his bearing a warning to stand well back.
This was St Brigid’s day but there was no mystery as to what made it seismic. The last time Cross’ lost a championship match of any colour was September 2009. Before Saturday, their record in All-Ireland semi-finals was Played 9, Won 7, Lost 2. They won their latest Ulster Championship at a canter – no team finished within six points of them – and they had never lost to a team from Connacht.
This was an outcome for which they simply had no reference point; little wonder there were still tears in the eyes of the Kernan brothers a half hour after the final whistle.
Kevin McStay’s side deserve their due, every bit of it. They didn’t win pretty on Saturday but then it’s reasonable to assume prettiness wouldn’t have won them a damn thing anyway. They found a route to victory the best way they could – by slowing the perennial champions down at every turn, by niggling them out of their rhythm and keeping the scoreline squeezed vice-tight all the way.
Cross’ never led by more than two points at any stage and when it came time to inflict the deepest wound in the dying minutes, it was Brigid’s who had their hand on the knife.
With five minutes to go and Cross’ a point up, a cross-field ball found Frankie Dolan on the edge of the square. Dolan had put in a patchy afternoon, scoring 1-3 but missing easy frees into the bargain and finding it hard to make the ball stick when it came his way.
He did so this time, however, and just as he went to shoot for goal he was bundled over for what would have been a certain penalty had the ball not run perfectly for substitute Conor McHugh. With his first and only touch of the game, McHugh couldn’t miss the open goal.
“I’m glad it wasn’t a penalty and he let it play,” said McStay afterwards. “I thought our lads stayed at it, we made a lot of mistakes and we turned over a lot of ball that we wouldn’t normally do. That’s the pressure of trying to beat these fellas. It’s so hard to go beyond them and we are really going to take momentum from this.
“They set the standard on so many different levels – physically, mentally and then ability. So we had to match them in a lot of different places and by and large I think we did.”
McHugh’s goal meant Brigid’s scoring for the day was bookended by green flags. Their opening score came from the boot of Dolan as early as the second minute, although his goal owed plenty to a deflection from the outstretched hand of Cross’ full back James Morgan. The Ulster champions got back on terms 10 minutes later when corner-back Paul Hughes made a blistering run off the shoulder of Jamie Clarke before finishing high into the net.
Further points from Clarke, Kyle Carragher and Kyle Brennan left them 1-5 to 1-3 up at the break, with Brigid’s hanging in there primarily through frees. Even the staunchest Brigid’s supporter would have to concede they felt the more benign end of referee Maurice Deegan’s stick throughout.
All the same, the deposed champions will feel they only have themselves to blame for not closing this out. Brennan missed an open goal directly after half-time that would have put them five to the good and it was 20 minutes before they got their next score. By then, Brigid’s had turned a two-point deficit into a two-point lead.
Karol Mannion, Senan Kilbride and Cathal McHugh began controlling the game and Dolan did his best work in this spell. With 10 minutes to go, they were 1-7 to 1-5 up.
But a cracking contest had a couple of loops to throw yet. First Cross’ got their only sustained piece of fluidity going all day, with David McKenna, Clarke and Aaron Kernan reeling off three points in four minutes. It looked for all the world like this was business as usual, the juggernaut rolling ever onwards to yet another Paddy’s Day in Dublin.
McHugh’s goal said otherwise. A minute after it, Carragher saw a straight red for an off-the-ball strike on Shane Curran and although Clarke pulled a point back, it wasn’t enough. Crossmaglen were out.
Feels odd even to type the words.
ST BRIGID’S: S Curran; R Stack, P Domican, N Grehan; G Cunniffe, D Donnelly, G Dolan; G Aherne, I Kilbride; D Dolan, K Mannion, Cathal McHugh (0-2); S Kilbride (0-2, frees), F Dolan (1-3, 0-2 free), R Blake. Subs: E Sheehy for G Dolan (half-time), D Kelleher for Grehan (47 mins), Conor McHugh (1-0) for Cathal McHugh (54 mins), G Dolan for D Dolan (60 mins).
CROSSMAGLEN RANGERS: P Hearty; P Hughes (1-0), P Kernan, P McKeown; A Kernan (0-2, 0-1 free), J Morgan, M Aherne; J Hanratty, D McKenna (0-1); D O’Callaghan, S Kernan, T Kernan; J Clarke (0-3), K Carragher (0-2), O McConville. Subs: K Brennan (0-1) for McConville (21 mins), A Cunningham for P Kernan (half-time), C Cummiskey for Cunningham (60 mins), M Boyce for O’Callaghan (61 mins). Referee: M Deegan (Laois).