GAA Football

Crossmaglen striving for a return to glory days says Donal Murtagh

Aaron Kernan remains an important part of the Crossmaglen Rangers line-up. Picture Mark Marlow.
Andy Watters

NOW in his second stint as manager of his native Crossmaglen, Donal Murtagh admits the Rangers class of 2018 doesn’t have the same clout as its predecessors but he warns that the south Armagh kingpins could be on the rise again.

With Murtagh in command, Cross won three in-a-rows in Armagh and Ulster between 2006 and 2008 and added the 2007 All-Ireland club championship to their trophy collection during an incredible run of success that lasted for two decades.

Crossmaglen’s utter domination of the Armagh senior championship saw them win 19 county titles in 20 years from 1996 to 2015. However, their Orchard rivals have caught up with them in the past two seasons with Maghery (2016) and Armagh Harps (2017) taking the last two Gerry Fagan Cups.

Murtagh’s young Cross side takes on reigning champions Armagh Harps at the Athletic Grounds tonight in an eagerly-awaited clash. Murtagh feels that the Cathedral City outfit is one of the five clubs in with a realistic shout of winning this year’s title.

“Even when we were winning it, it would have been a great Armagh championship if we hadn’t been in it,” he said.

“We were that far ahead of everybody else but there was always five or six other good teams there.

“We’re not the same team as we were and there’s probably five teams could win it this year – the Harps, Maghery, Ballymacnab, Cullyhanna and ourselves. Any one of those could win it.”

Household names like Oisin McConville, the McEntee brothers, Paul Hearty and Francie Bellew are all long retired, but Murtagh still has Tony and Aaron Kernan, Paul Hughes, Kyle Carragher and James Morgan at his disposal as well as emerging talents like Paudie Studdard and the O’Neill brothers Oisin and Rian.

“The first time I came in, the team was in a bit of transition and I brought Johnny Hanratty, David McKenna and Paul Kernan through,” he recalled.

“The following year there was Kyle Carragher, Paul McKeown and Rico Kelly and the year after that we had Jamie Clarke, Francis Hanratty and Aaron Cunningham.

“We were getting great numbers through and we still had a couple of the warhorses – John and Tony (McEntee) were there, John Donaldson, Francie Bellew, Cathal Short, Oisin (McConville) was there and we added the new men in around them and it worked an absolute treat.

“We had a great mix at that time. We had five or six at 28-30 years of age, two or three at Aaron Kernan’s age, 21 or 22, and then another group of exceptional players coming through. We haven’t the same mix at the minute but we have a lot of young boys coming through and it remains to be seen if they’re good enough.”

Rangers’ early championship form was patchy and there were rumours that the men who wore the famous black and amber jersey were a pale shadow of the players who had gone before them. Cross scraped past Madden and Killeavy but they turned on the style with a tour de force in the third of their group games, hammering Clann Eireann by 20 points to move into the knockout stage with confidence.

“There’s a new format this year and I think the jury is still out on it,” said Murtagh.

“You’re still going to end up with the top four teams in the semi-finals. I don’t know what the result they (the Armagh county board) hoped for was but the big teams are going to end up in the last four anyway.

“The beauty of the knockout was that an underdog could turn somebody over on any given day and cause an upset but now with the league format there’s less chances of upsets happening. The new format gives the bigger teams a second day out in case they’ve had a bad day.”

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