IT was over an hour after the end of last year’s Ulster final and the delighted whoops and roars from the Crossmaglen dressing-room were still to be heard around the Athletics Ground in Armagh.
The win in extra-time against Scotstown had brought Cross an 11th Ulster title since 1996 and maintained their impeccable and incredible record of never actually losing an Ulster final.
In fact, counting Armagh and All-Ireland finals they’ve won 36 of the last 37 deciders they’ve contested, their one setback the 2009 All-Ireland final. And yet after eventually putting Scotstown away they celebrated like it was their first step onto the winners’ podium.
“There’s a reason for that,” says Aaron Kernan. “Maybe after winning Armagh titles so easily over the previous few seasons we had started to give ourselves a big pat on the back — to such an extent that we were starting to suffer in the Ulster championship.
“Maybe we had lost our discipline and lost our way a little bit. I was wondering if we were happy to celebrate what we had achieved. Were we thinking that we were great men? Maybe so.
“Strange all the same, because before we took into Ulster last year it had been three years since we’d won a game outside Armagh. In the past few seasons St Brigids, Kilcoo and Omagh had all beaten us in the club series. That was just not acceptable for us. But it was self-inflicted. We just went on a run of winning games that we thought would automatically continue. That’s when you’re most vulnerable.”
After they hammered Armagh Harps in last year’s county decider — a day on which they dished up champagne football, scoring 2-22 to 0-10 in landing their 19th county championship in 20 years — management sensed a danger they could be caught again.
Before they faced Kilcoo in the Ulster series they received a text summons from their joint managers, John McEntee and Oisin McConville — be at the club Tuesday for video analysis.
Players looked forward to a “Best Of” compilation from that domestic final. Sit back and revisit those Hollywood scores, admire the tracking back, the clever support runs, the dead-eye shooting. What they got instead was a video nasty.
“The two boys showed us a five-minute video clip of our changing-rooms after Omagh had beaten us the year before,” Kernan (31) reveals. “It was car-crash stuff. The management had been mic’d up to a camera, and a TV crew had been following us in the expectation we’d go all the way. So we were left looking at that. It was raw. Brutal. You’d wince looking at it. The devastation!
“The two lads didn’t talk at all. They just ran the video and told us we were going to go training on the field. It was probably the best thing ever happened us. Let’s just say the endeavour was a little more honest that night.”
Such roundedness has long served the club well. They have a rare talent for retaining almost every player they produce, from underage to senior, and helping them evolve into coaching roles. Very few ever leave the inner circle.
Their strength owes much to a difficult history. Determination and resilience were needed during years of occupancy by British forces; a period that threatened the club’s existence.
They held their ground and re-emerged from the troubles to redress the seasons of stagnation and under-investment. Economic difficulties have plagued South Armagh but Cross have worked hard to help investment in the community. They are well into a five-year plan costing £2.35m for new floodlights, another training pitch, dressing-rooms and a general upgrading of infrastructure.
It’s estimated big games (club and inter-county) played in Crossmaglen over the years have generated well over £20m for the local economy — some statistic for a club in a parish of only 1,300 households and with three rival outfits on the doorstep.
Says Kernan: “The club plays a much bigger role than just getting lads playing football. From a selfish point of view, it kept me busy after I stepped away from 10 years with Armagh. I was able to go back playing at a high level in an environment that was organised and had over 22 players there every night. Not every club can get those numbers at every training session.
“I needed to have peace in my mind after opting out of Armagh and the club helped me with that; suddenly you have new goals and ambitions.
“But for the other boys the club has kept a lot of them at home — or brought them back. We have boys living in Portlaoise, Dublin and Belfast but they travel home and train every night and they wouldn’t even contemplate transferring.
“We have 12 students based in Belfast and they always come back. That bit of success keeps them at home but the locals help too by giving them weekend jobs and helping them with a bit of pocket money. It works well.” Kernan adds that the Northern Ireland economy has picked up dramatically, which helps his property-service business. Between 2008 and 2014, he focused on leasing, but as he says, people are buying again, and demand often takes him as far as Belfast.
And even though he could, by common consent, still do a job at wing back for Armagh, the demands of a growing business dictate otherwise.
“You just need that balance in life,” he says. “Family comes first but if you can give the necessary attention to work and the commitment to football and still enjoy it then you’re on a winner.
“People need to be enjoying themselves here. It’s not about dragging them down to the field. To get to the level we’re at there needs to be fun and enjoyment. But our management get the balance right. And our committee just want to be a committee, to run the club well and have the right structures. Our managers just want to manage. And our players just want to play.
“Everyone in Cross has reined things back in a little. We just go for next target in front of us now. I think we owe it to Oisin and John. They see themselves as facilitators but their presence alone means more to me than them just being facilitators.
“I felt regret and unease with us not being successful with them men in charge, because they deserved more and they earned the right to get more out of us. Those two lads took a job that brings pressure and expectancy but they stepped up.”
Both men, of course, know the Cross way inside out. Over the years the club have developed a checklist for each game. The fundamental credo is that the ball moves faster than the man. They seek to create 25 scoring chances per game and aim to win 65 percent of breaking ball. They aspire to keep a clean sheet and garner at least 70 percent of possession in open play.
Such unrelenting pursuit of excellence inevitably entails dangers. And so before last year’s county semi-final against Maghery, McConville and McEntee pulled another masterstroke; they called up eight of the club’s youngsters who had just won the county minor title.
They lifted the cup and went straight into the senior dressing-room for the first time.
“When you have eight young lads running out onto the pitch for a county semi-final it just gives the whole team an injection of energy,” Kernan smiles.
“The enthusiasm — they were bubbling! They got stuck into the warm-up and Oisin O’Neill soon broke onto the team.” Cross got through that game by three points; enough to keep them on the glory trail. Today against Castlebar Mitchels they will bid to reach another All-Ireland final. McEntee and McConville are ready to play a fresh trump card or two.
It’s how they do things.
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