Errigal once again facing the best in the business


Ulster Club SFC Semi-finals:Twice they have met Crossmaglen and twice they have beaten them but can they do it again?

When Errigal Ciarán and Crossmaglen met 10 Novembers ago, it took three full games to separate them. It takes a bit of imagination to reconfigure the football landscape as it was then. Armagh folk were still slightly dizzy from their maiden All-Ireland football success of that September.

But Tyrone had yet to win a senior All-Ireland and nobody expected that to change any time soon. The odds were slanted for this quarter-final. True, Errigal Ciarán had the Canavan brothers and the silky Eoin Gormley in their ranks. But Cross’ looked as they always look on misty winter Sundays: indomitable. So nobody really expected the Tyrone men to prevail and certainly nobody expected the three-match page-turner which evolved.

“I remember those games very clearly,” says Ronan McGuckin, Errigal Ciarán’s manager this season. “I was a part of that Ballinderry team who were waiting to play the winners in the final. So I was at all three games. And they were fabulous games at that time.”

The clubs had met just once previously, when an electrifying return of 1-9 for Eoin Gormley helped Errigal Ciarán win by two points in 1997.

But by 2002, Crossmaglen had become a machine, threshing the ambitions of clubs across Ulster. They were eight points to the good going into the last quarter against the Tyrone champions and it seemed to be business as usual.

Famous introduction

“I thought it was a lost cause,” admitted Mickey Harte, Errigal’s manager at time.

In fact, Harte was in the running for the vacant Tyrone post at the time and as someone remarked in the press box: “If he wins this, he’ll be in pole position.” And in a move that presaged a famous introduction he would make when managing Tyrone, Harte withdrew Peter Canavan – who had suffered a dead leg – early in the match only to reintroduce him late in the game when Errigal Ciarán were in the midst of an outrageous comeback.

“Nice to have a player like that to bring on, even on half a leg,” Harte said.

They met again a week later and after extra time, the score was 1-10 to 1-10. As the teams prepared for the replay, Harte was appointed Tyrone manager. Three days later, the Tyrone men went out and beat Crossmaglen by three points and then knocked out Ballinderry, leaving them in an Ulster final against Enniskillen. Afterwards, Harte made a point which set the tone not just for Errigal Ciarán but for Tyrone football in the season ahead.

“What’s the value of playing Crossmaglen three times and Ballinderry if you don’t go out and perform in the next match? There were no cups or medals handed out for this. Enniskillen next weekend is where that happens.”

Errigal Ciarán kept on rolling in that Ulster final. That was the beginning of a fabulous year for Harte and the other club men on the county scene. Ten months later, Tyrone were All-Ireland champions for the very first time. It is tempting to attribute some of that success to their top club’s eventful winter campaign.

Effect on Tyrone

“It is an interesting point,” McGuckin says. “There are a multitude of reasons as to why Tyrone won but I am sure their success on the provincial scene had a positive influence on the psyche of the Tyrone players in general. They saw their club going on and competing at the highest level. “I suppose that Mickey’s appointment was the most important turning point in Tyrone’s rise to prominence so when you look at it that way, those games might have been a fulcrum for how everything turned out for Tyrone in the intervening years.”

Certainly, it was no accident Tyrone and Armagh met in the All-Ireland final the following year: they were the best teams in the country at that time. Crossmaglen have remained remarkably consistent since that point but Errigal Ciarán are one of the teams they have yet to beat. “Those Cross games stood to us in terms of winning Ulster,” says Cathal McAnenly, the current Tyrone under-21 assistant manager and a former player with Errigal.

“That was the big thing – once you beat a team of Crossmaglen’s stature that at least we didn’t stop there. It enabled us to compete at the top level within Tyrone. I suppose it did instil confidence in players for the season ahead.

“That team stayed together in 2006, when we won the county title again. It has taken six years from then to win it again so we had a few barren years.”

In fact, when Ronan McGuckin took charge of the team at the beginning of the season, they hadn’t won a championship match in five years. There were mitigating circumstances – they had tough first-round draws and suffered several narrow defeats. “There wasn’t a lot wrong with the club and I had a good core of players to work with,” says the Ballinderry man.

McGuckin is candid about the fact Errigal Ciarán’s reputation was the main reason he was attracted to the position and he admits to feeling slight trepidation about walking into a club which produced both Harte and Canavan.

“Because the two men mentioned are not only legends within the club, they are legends in sport in Ireland. So to follow in their footsteps was daunting. But when you are putting yourself out there, you have to have a certain faith in your own ability and that was important when I took the job.”

Because McGuckin made one proviso which allowed him to stand back if Errigal Ciarán met his native Ballinderry, it was all but inevitable that the teams did meet. His decision to step aside was controversial but was made easier by the fact that the Tyrone men prevailed.

“It was an issue that seemed to divide opinions all over the country. I was shocked at the level of attention that it got. But it is completely in the backburner now. When you are playing a team like Crossmaglen you focus on nothing but that.”

Crossmaglen have become the moment of truth for all teams with ambition. All you have to do is keep your season alive until November and they will be there, as formidable and apparently unbeatable as ever. McGuckin stood in the stand and watched them dismantle the Donegal champions two weeks ago. What he saw did not give him reason for optimism.

“As an opposition manager, you try to flag weaknesses but it doesn’t apply with Crossmaglen . . . they are absolutely strong all over the field and if on any day one or two players fall below the expected level, they have quality substitutes that can change the game. So it is a daunting task for me and for the players. But when you get to the semi-final of Ulster, you are in with the elite and you have to expect to come up against some very good teams. Unfortunately for us we are coming up against the best team in the country, but such is life.”

Winter conditions

Crossmaglen’s defiance of time and population has become one of the great, shining stories of the contemporary GAA era.

Just when it seemed they might retreat into ordinariness for a time, they instead managed to achieve an even higher level of consistency. That they are chasing a third Ulster (and All-Ireland title) in a row means that they have become all but unbeatable.

It also means that they have been on the road now for a very long time: the GAA club season is about as grinding as they come. But Crossmaglen have always made light of winter conditions.

“It’s a valid point . . . There is a big difference in playing now and in the sunshine in the summer. The ground is softer and the ball won’t run for you as easily so you have to adapt. Crossmaglen seem to thrive . . . their game lends itself to the conditions and that is something we have to be wary of. The word ‘phenomenal’ is used from time to time without true basis for it. But in the case of Crossmaglen you can use that word and you are not overstating it. They have dominated Ulster football now for a decade.

“They have won six All-Ireland clubs and they keep producing players. When a certain group of players retires, you imagine they will be hard to replace and yet they seem to be able to bring on four or five fresh faces who are every bit as good if not better. It is a staggering achievement over the past 15 years,” says McGuckin.

And so today in Clones, the odds will be firmly against Errigal Ciarán preserving their perfect record against the perfect club team. But the Tyrone champions are among the few clubs who know what it is like to beat Crossmaglen. That is something to bring into the old ground.“As I said to numerous people, come Sunday there will be a lot of players on both sides that have never played against each other,” McAnenly stresses. “So you never know what is going to happen.”

Three days in November

NOVEMBER 3, 2002

Errigal Ciarán 2-09

Crossmaglen 2-09

The home crowd watch as the Armagh champions build an eight-point lead before Mark Harte leads an extraordinary comeback, scoring 1-7. Pascal Canavan fists the ball in Errigal’s last attack and it crashes off the cross bar. “They could have pipped it,” admits Crossmaglen manager Oliver Short.

NOVEMBER 11 , 2002

Crossmaglen 1-10

Errigal Ciarán 1-10

The Armagh men start out in a hurry once more, building a 1-8 to 0-2 lead in front of 8,000 people on their home pitch. Once again, Errigal Ciarán come strong and bring the match into extra time.

NOVEMBER 18 , 2002

Errigal Ciarán 1-13

Crossmaglen 1-10

Clones is the venue for the third instalment. Again, Errigal fall into arrears, trailing by four when Peter Canavan produces a lethal goal during a 10-minute spell in which they built a 1-8 to 1-4 lead at half-time. Fatigue and familiarity led to a slow-burning second half and Errigal Ciarán stayed ahead.

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