Crossmaglen will always be one of the top clubs in Armagh says Brian Canavan
THROUGHOUT Brian Canavan's time in the Armagh dugout, Crossmaglen were the best club side in Ireland.
Peerless in the Orchard county, the Rangers won All-Ireland club titles in 1997, 1999 and 2000 with an exceptional group of talented players who wore the black and amber jersey with absolute pride.
Little wonder that one Cross' stalwart remarked at the time: “We're lucky. Most places have county players who happen to play for the club. Here we have club players who happen to play for the county.”
It was up to Canavan and co-manager Brian McAlinden to come up with a way of adjusting that balance and getting the best players in the county to commit to the Armagh jersey.
He recalls some very frank exchanges with delegates from Crossmaglen during his time, but their differences were always sorted out before the ball was thrown in for the Ulster Championship.
“In our day, me and Brian McAlinden had great rows with Cross,” the Poyntzpass man, now an active referee in Armagh and a popular BBC Radio Ulster pundit, explained.
“I remember one meeting and the county chairman was there and he turned white! It was a row second to none and there were no words barred. Several times the county chairman tried to step in to sort it out, but he couldn't sort it out.
“But once the meeting was over we shook hands and then went out and had a drink. I always felt you had to keep the contact lines going so we had a way into Cross and they had a way into us.”
Part of the problem in the 1990s was that half of the National Football League was played in November and December, right in the middle of the club championship, and the other half was played after Christmas.
Nowadays the League doesn't start until January so, unless a club gets to the All-Ireland semi-final, club action does not affect county football. As a busy referee, Canavan sees more football in Armagh than most and, for him, Crossmaglen's O'Neill brothers – Oisin and Rian - are two of the outstanding players in the county.
“I can't understand why the county team hasn't got Oisin O'Neill, at midfield, and Rian, at centre half-forward,” said Canavan.
“They are the two outstanding players I've seen this year. They were kicking the ball over the bar from 45 metres and I don't see that happening anywhere I go.
“In our time if there was friction you could get a wee liaison going – but there doesn't seem to be any liaison at the minute. If the right man was there, you'd feel he could go into Cross and see about getting the two O'Neills back playing for Armagh.”
Canavan – an Ulster Championship winner as a player who took Armagh to back-to-back Anglo-Celt Cups as joint-manager in 1999 and 2000 - is concerned that the absence of talented forwards could hamper Armagh's chances of success this summer.
“You haven't got Jamie Clarke, James Morgan, the two O'Neill's or Stefan Campbell and to me they would be automatic choices,” he said.
“You would build the team around them, but they aren't there for various reasons and you can't expect to be competing at the top level if you haven't got them because we're a small enough county as it is.
“At the minute, Armagh have plenty of players who can play in Division Three, but we don't have that many who could play in Division One.”
As for Crossmaglen, Canavan says the club is simply going through a bad patch. The Rangers have come up short in the last two Armagh Championships, but he expects the south Armagh powerhouse to regain their status as the best in the county before long.
“Cross have always been up there – they've always been in the top two or three – and they always will be,” he said.
“They have a great way of keeping teams together and there's great experience in the club too. They're just going through a wee blip at the minute.”