Exacting revenge on Kilcoo for that final defeat three years ago, they had to bide their time and on another day may have rued their nine first- half wides. So slow were they out of the blocks, Kilcoo could have been more than two points up after the opening 20 minutes.
But there was only one team in the game after half-time by which stage Crossmaglen had restored parity at 0-3 apiece. Kernan, along with brother Aaron, was integral to the team’s sharper and slicker attitude in the second-half.
Although all of Stephen’s three points came from frees, he was the architect of so many including a marvellous grubber-style kick to find Kyle Carragher for the inside forward’s second of three points in the 40th minute.
It was Kernan who teed up Rico Kelly for a strike at goal just two minutes previous but the full-forward’s shot came off the post and Kilcoo cleared their lines. Had it found the net, Kilcoo would have been dead and buried but theirs was a slow but predictable death as soon as the Kernans from frees and Oisín O’Neill doubled Crossmaglen’s first half tally inside the opening six minutes of the second-half.
Crossmaglen were five points up in the 43rd minute as Kilcoo were struggling to retain any semblance of discipline. A Darragh O’Hanlon point seconds later ended a massive 29-minute score drought for Kilcoo but Tony Kernan was soon finding his range again at the other end.
For the remainder, Crossmaglen kept their opponents at arms’ length. Dominic McEvoy’s red card for a second bookable offence in the 54th minute certainly helped their cause but Crossmaglen were also a tad cynical or at least tired in their tackling towards the end, picking up two black cards, to keep Kilcoo at bay.
But registering just three points from play, it would have been quite unfair on Crossmaglen had Kilcoo managed to salvage something here in front of a 9,591 Newry crowd.
The return of Jamie Clarke for the first time since May as a 54th minute replacement was cheered as Crossmaglen fans appreciated only the most untypical of collapses would deny them a final berth.
But after a first-half where they looked to have run out of ideas when confronted by Kilcoo’s black blanket, it didn’t always look on the cards. Patience was essential. “We just kept our composure,” said Crossmaglen joint-manager John McEntee. “We knew they were going to bring serious intensity and we sort of figured that you can only keep that up for so long because our boys move well and work hard.
“We knew it would be a tight game at half-time and we were hoping we would maintain that momentum and correct the mistakes we made in the first-half. A lot of balls spilled over the sideline and the inside line was too cluttered.
“At half-time, we felt we still had plenty left in the tank. It was mistakes we were making that was keeping the in the game. We dominated the last 20 minutes in my humble opinion. We just couldn’t kick it over the bar. It was just about tweaking bits and pieces.”
While there were nine yellow cards, two blacks and one red issued by Noel Mooney, this game never took on the ugliness of the 2012 final in which Aaron Cunningham was subjected to racist abuse by a Kilcoo defender and supporter who received four month and life bans, respectively.
Cunningham was one of two late changes to the Crossmaglen team, partnering Johnny Hanratty in the middle. “In previous years, they have been negative,” said McEntee of Kilcoo’s tactics. “In the first-half they had a lot of bodies back.
“To be fair, they have a lot of flair up front and they needed to keep them up there, the three or four men who are score-getters. If they’re not up there they’re not going to score goals. That takes three or four men out of the defensive equation. It’s one of those days when we are delighted with the result. I don’t know if the scoreline needs to be as big as it was. We’re happy to be in another Ulster final.”
D O’Hanlon (0-5, 4 frees); R Johnston, M Devlin, J Johnston (free) (0-1 each).
T Kernan (frees), A Kernan (0-2 frees), K Carragher (0-3 each); P Hughes, O O’Neill, R Kelly (0-1 each).
S Kane; N Branagan, A Branagan, D Branagan; D O’Hanlon, A Branagan, R Johnston; F McGreevy, J McClean; D Ward, P Devlin, A Morgan; C Laverty, P Greenan, j johnston.
M Devlin for P Devlin (inj 24); D McEvoy for F McGreevy (34); G McEvoy for J McClean (46); Gerard McEvoy for D Ward (56); Gary McEvoy for A Morgan (60).
P Hearty; J Morgan, A Rushe, P Hughes; M Aherne, P McKeown, A Kernan; J Hanratty, A Cunningham; M McNamee, S Kernan, T Kernan; O O’Neill, R Kelly, K Carragher.
D McConville for J Hanratty (blood, 30+2 to h-t); K Brennan for O O’Neill (48); J Murtagh for A Cunningham (50); J Clarke for M McNamee (inj 56); S Finnegan for A Rushe (black, 58); C Cummiskey for K Carragher (60+1); D McConville for S Kernan (black, 60+2).
N Mooney (Cavan).