Crossmaglen 3-10 Kilcoo 1-8
Crossmaglen have developed an enviable reputation as a team that just doesn’t do defeats, and especially in finals, but the All-Ireland champions very nearly beat themselves in yesterday’s Ulster decider.
With just 18 minutes played, they held an 11-point lead and were well on track to register the most convincing margin in the history of this decider but the record set by Lavey of Derry in their 12-point battering of Cavan’s Kingscourt back in 1990 was safe long before the finish.
Half-a-dozen points still separated Cross and Kilcoo at the end but the gap had shrunk to just a goal 10minutes into the second-half after a sequence which saw the underdogs outscore the perennial giants of the club game by 1-5 to 0-1.
It was a spell of dominance that spanned both sides of the interval and reached its peak with Anthony Devlin’s 41st minute goal but, by then, Aaron Cunningham had already reacted to what the latter claimed to be at least two instances of racial abuse.
Cunningham, to his immense credit, kept his head down and played out the remainder of the game to the best of his ability but Crossmaglen would end the contest with just 13 on the pitch after Michael McNamee and Jamie Clarke received their marching orders.
McNamee was the first to go. Introduced for an injured Stephen Kernan after 28 minutes, he was gone again just seconds after Devlin’s three-pointer, his off-the-ball punch of Jerome Johnston enough to warrant a straight red from ref Joe McQuillan.
Clarke followed suit towards the end of the contest after a second yellow but Cross had already managed to stem the concession of scores in the interim and they pulled through to claim their third straight provincial title and 10th in total.
It was a most peculiar performance from the club giants. For the first 15 minutes the South Armagh side were at their imperious best, making even the shortest of odds offered on them last week look ridiculously generous.
All week, Kilcoo will have schooled themselves about the importance of a steady start. Get through the first quarter without any major mistakes, assess the damage and build from there. What they didn’t reckon on was a moment of madness minutes into the game.
Wing-back Gerard McEvoy was the culprit, sticking out a leg to trip Stephen Kernan just as the Armagh man had run out of road on the end line, and Óisin McConville extracted the maximum payment with a well-struck penalty.
So far, so bad. And then it got worse.
Tony Kernan lobbed a long ball in goalwards soon after and Kyle Carragher batted it down for the onrushing Aaron Kernan who fired to the net. So, with four minutes gone, Cross led by two goals to no score.
You feared for Kilcoo then. Crossmaglen’s forwards swept across their bows from all parts, swapping positions with abandon and taking defenders with them on their travels. The underdogs attempted to shore things up with a sweeper but nothing worked. Then the storm petered out.
Having played with such purpose and penetration, Cross seemed to lose their direction. Balls were pumped in aimlessly towards McConville, Clarke and Carragher and the only solace for them was that Kilcoo were struggling just as much at the opposite end.
By the time the half ended, Cross led 2-6 to 0-3 with all three of Kilcoo’s scores coming from frees. It didn’t augur well but then Dan Kane registered their first from play four minutes after the interval, punched the air in defiance, and the comeback began. At the time, of course, it looked like a slightly outlandish gesture from a man berthed on a sinking ship but three more points were recorded before Devlin rounded Paul Hearty and raised the green flag.
It was Kilcoo’s good fortune that, in Paul Devlin and Darragh O’Hanlon, they possessed men who could share the free-taking duties depending on which side of the field the chances arose and the latter’s last of two on the day followed the goal and left just three points in it.
Jaws dropped and eyes were rubbed as the unthinkable was contemplated but then Cross replied through Martin Aherne, whose point was just their second in over half an hour. The siege had been lifted and a McConville point and third goal, from Kyle Brennan, made it safe before two late consolation scores from Kilcoo, who will have cause to regret their painfully slow start.
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