Oisín O’Neill wants young Cross players to leave a mark

‘In Cross our first option always is to go out and play attacking football’

For anyone close to Crossmaglen Rangers the memory of the British army barracks looming next to their home ground at St Oliver Plunkett Park is as much a part of club history as their six All-Ireland football titles, 11 Ulster titles, and now record 45 Armagh titles. Built in 1971 and taking possession of part of the club's ground while they were at it, the army barracks and looming watchtower meant only one thing: trouble.

That threat may have lifted, and for Oisín O’Neill, as close to Crossmaglen as anyone, the hope and intention is to keep it that way. Born and bred in the south Armagh village – his father Garath a senior player and mentor with the club – O’Neill speaks with natural relief when assessing the current situation after several months of uncertainty over Brexit.

“It’s in the past, part of the army barracks is still there, we see it, but, no, we’d like to think Crossmaglen has moved on,” he says. “And it’s becoming more of a vibrant town, and that’s good to see, new shops and restaurants. The town is moving on from the Troubles in the past.

“Even last week there were protests [against a hard border] around maybe 20 spots near Crossmaglen, where the Border would meet, from families living there, people from the club.


“So many people from Crossmaglen would work in the South, from our team especially would work in Dublin, and it was strange to think their lives might be changed. Thankfully now agreement has been reached. Hopefully that’s all good for us.”

While still only 22, O’Neill is one of the more senior members of the current Armagh panel: on Sunday he scored 1-5, his younger brother Rian 0-2, as Crossmaglen won that 45th title, coming back from five points down against Ballymacnab to win by nine.

Club hero

Their uncle is Oisín McConville, club hero and All-Ireland winner with Armagh in 2002, but having won that latest title O’Neill believes it’s time for this crop of players to leave their own mark. Being injury-free helps.

“Now we feel we want to be able to emulate what they’ve done. We’re sort of creating a group that will be strong enough over the next few years to press on, to challenge, and it’s just up to us to continue to develop and get back to feel where we need to be.”

The older influence was deep and lasting nonetheless, especially his father.

“When I was younger he was still playing for Cross, and he would have taken us from under-8, 10, 12, and we won an under-21 championships, and he was senior manager as well. They would nearly all have worked under him at some stage.

“He’d be hard on us, but we’d be hard on ourselves anyway. We only know if he’s saying something it’s to try and improve us, and make us better the next day we go out.

"But the thing that really stands out from that team was the character they always had. They had some real battles against some really good teams, the two Crokes especially, Kilmacud and Dr Crokes, in All-Ireland semi-finals where they would have come back from big deficits.

“In Crossmaglen our first option always is to go out and play attacking football and move the ball long, but some days that just won’t happen, especially against certain opposition. But now we have to be realistic, and be ready to adapt to anything that’s thrown at us.

“Like last year against Gaoth Dobhair [in the Ulster semi-final] we probably were naive, and that was a lot of our players’ first times playing in Ulster. And they were maybe that wee bit more experienced than us, and they were able to manipulate us.”

Big things

Younger brother Rian has also been singled out for big things with club and county having made a real impact in Kieran McGeeney’s senior team this summer.

“Rian has always been a big talent, and he had a really good season with Armagh. Anyone who watched club football in Armagh the last couple of seasons would have known that is what he’s capable of. He does it week in, week out.

“He would have a carefree sort of attitude, and he wouldn’t let things bog him down. He would just see playing county football as playing a club game as well. He’d sort of have that relaxed nature.”

Their first test in Ulster will bring memories of another sort: in their Ulster quarter-final on Saturday week they face Clontibret, the Monaghan champions managed by John McEntee, also a club hero in Crossmaglen.

“John was joint manager with Oisín in 2015 when they gave me my first chance of playing senior football, so I will always be grateful to them for giving me the opportunity and making some of my dreams come true.

“Look, John is a legend in our club. He was an All-Ireland winning captain at 20 years of age. How many men can say they’ve done that? The thing about John is that he has a job to do, but we know he is a Crossmaglen man, through and through.

“He was supporting us last Sunday. He does a lot of work behind the scenes with our underage and stuff. He’s a Crossmaglen man through and through.

“And that left foot, it was gifted, like. The thing was, he stood up for Crossmaglen so many days when maybe other players weren’t playing so well. John was always someone that was relied upon, and he really is a legend in Cross.

"It's okay talking about John on the sideline, but Clontibret have some really, really good players. Like, any team that has Conor McManus in it is going to be hard to beat. Then you throw in Vinny Corey, Dessie Mone and the experience that they are going to bring. It's going to be a real battle."

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics