Threepeat in sight for all-conquering Crossmaglen

Crossmaglen Rgs (Armagh) 2-10 Errigal Ciaran (Tyrone) 0-10

Four times the sides had met before and the South Armagh men had somehow failed to claim a victory in any of them. Call it a hoodoo or a jinx – and Rangers claimed it was neither – but it has been well and truly banished after this ultimately comfortable win.

“No, it had no bearing whatsoever,” said manager Tony McEntee afterwards. “We’ve played numerous teams that we’ve never beaten before – Loup, in Derry, who we played once in an Ulster semi-final and got beat.”

Of more import is the fact that this leaves them just an hour away from a hat-trick of consecutive provincial titles. Should they succeed in that against Kilcoo of Down in a fortnight’s time, they will become the first club to do the northern threepeat more than once.

Crossmaglen, as is their wont, began the game as five-point favourites with the bookies but those odds probably took a slight tumble on news that perennial custodian, Paul Hearty, had succumbed to a bout of laryngitis and remained house-bound.

It was a serious blow but one lessened by the performance of his replacement, Kevin McKeown, whose unexpected appearance made for what must be one of the most unusual and yet uplifting stories to arise in Gaelic games this year.

McKeown has been on the Crossmaglen panel for 14 years but, in all that time, he had only ever appeared as a substitute in one (county) championship game which meant that yesterday was his first start even though he has been on the panel since the 1990s.

McKeown handled himself well but the fact it was his kickouts which caught the eye more than anything else speaks volumes for the solidity of a defence which never allowed their markers the openings enjoyed by their own at the other end.

Cross ended up scoring two goals but it could have been twice that at least with Jamie Clarke serving notice of the trend ahead by cracking a close-range shot off the Errigal Ciaran crossbar just seconds after Joe McQuillan’s throw-in.

Clarke was more fortunate 20 minutes later after receiving an accurate long ball from the excellent Stephen Kernan and dodging the attention of two defenders and goalkeeper John Devine before working an angle to find the net.

David McKenna would land another four minutes from time but that was merely to put the seal on the win. Clarke’s, in contrast, was an oasis of reassurance amid a deeply worrying period for the men in stripes.

Errigal Ciaran were outstanding in the opening 30 minutes, logging point after point thanks to some hugely industrious work off the ball and equally enterprising efforts whilst in possession of it.

The Tyrone side had stars dotted up and down the sward in that period. Stefan Tierney was hovering up at the back, Cormac McGinley was dominant in the middle while Peter Harte was, as usual, turning up everywhere and anywhere.

With the Canavans, Thomas and Darren, providing constructive outlets further afield, Errigal Ciaran racked up eight points in the first 26 minutes and yet it would be another 26 before they registered another score of any description.

There are many astonishing aspects to Crossmaglen as a club and a team but perhaps chief among them is their ability to collect themselves in a tight spot, identify what is going wrong and produce turnaround after turnaround.

Clarke kicked it off with his goal and a point a minute later but, though there was just the bare minimum between them at the break, Cross had signed off with four bad wides one after the other and they clearly needed to retune.

Their reaction was instant and exact. There was nothing melodic about the second-half with its litany of frees and injuries but when the ball was in play it was invariably being moved about by a man in black and amber.

McEntee estimated that his side must have enjoyed over 70% in that 30-minute spell but it was the third quarter which proved to be the winning and losing of this semi-final against and Errigal side that simply couldn’t last the pace.

This wasn’t Crossmaglen at their best, but it says something about a side that they can navigate a path into another provincial decider whilst playing within themselves.

Scorers for Crossmaglen: O McConville (0-5, 4 frees); J Clarke (1-1); D McKenna (1-0); P Hughes (0-1); A Kernan (0-1 free); S Kernan (0-1 free); T Kernan (0-1).

Scorers for Errigal Ciaran: D Canavan (0-3, 1 free); T Canavan (0-3, 2 frees); R McRory (0-2); P Harte (0-1); C McGinley (0-1).

Subs for Crossmaglen: M McNamee for Cunningham (29); C Cumiskey for Carragher (57); K Brennan for McConville (57); P Grant for Clarke (63); R Finnegan for Aherne (64).

Sub for Errigal Ciarans: J Kelly for P Quinn (50).

CROSSMAGLEN: P Hearty; P Hughes, P Kernan, M Aherne; A Kernan, J Morgan. P McKeown; J Hanratty, D McKenna; S Kernan. J Clarke, T Kernan; O McConville,A Cunningham, K Carragher.

ERRIGAL CIARAN: J Devine; M McRory, A McCrory, C Quinn; S Tierney, P Harte, D Harte; C McGinley, E McGinley: C McGinley, T Canavan, P Quinn; R McRory, B Horisk, D Canavan.

Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan).

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