GAA Football

Crossmaglen weather storm to blitz Ballymacnab and keep up winning habit

Crossmaglen's players celebrate regaining their county SFC title Picture by Bill Smyth

Cormac Leonard Armagh Senior Football Championship final: Crossmaglen Rangers 0-24 Round Towers, Ballymacnab 1-15

YOU have to go back to 1982 for the last time Crossmaglen lost an Armagh championship final – and for a long time yesterday that record looked under threat before a brilliant late burst eventually saw them past Ballymacnab.

The ’Nab had their noses in front until the 50 minute mark thanks largely to a spectacular display of finishing from Jack Grugan, who bagged 1-5 – all from play – in the first half.

But you always felt Cross would get a purple patch at some stage, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the south Armagh men. From three behind in the 37th minute, they reeled off eight points in-a-row to bury Ballymacnab’s dream of a first senior crown in ruthless fashion.

Cross just don’t lose county finals any more.

From the 20 they have contested since losing to Carrickcruppen in ’82, 20 times they have brought home the Gerry Fagan Cup.

It is a remarkable achievement from a remarkable club – and few of those championships will have tasted as sweet as yesterday’s.

“The tradition’s there, but tradition itself is not going to win you matches,” said boss Donal Murtagh in the middle of the celebrations at the Athletic Grounds.

“You have to have the quality – we have the quality, we have the dedicated players, we have serious will to win. If you could bottle it, you’d be worth millions. Once again in the vital third quarter they came through and scored some great scores.

“We were disappointed the last two years, but you can’t keep competing at the top level all the time. We’ve come back in great spirit, we play football the way it should be played and we won’t play it any other way.”

Considering only two of their 24 point tally came from frees, there’s no arguing with that sentiment. Cross are easy on the eye.

But, after going toe-to-toe early on, it was Ballymacnab who help the upper hand, leaving them facing a few conundrums going in at half-time.

Firstly, they had to curtail the influence of Jack Grugan. Brother Rory Grugan and Gavin McParland were finding him at will, isolating him against Rico Kelly, and the big full-forward wasn’t in the mood to miss.

Cross switched James Morgan onto him after the break but, crucially, they put a stop to the constant supply of ball heading his direction out the field, with black and amber bodies surrounding their creators-in-chef any time they found themselves with ball in hand.

Rian O’Neill was also brought out around the middle and, from barely touching leather in the first half after being double-marked in the square, he proved untouchable in the second.

“Rian’s a full grown man at this stage, he is quality,” beamed Murtagh.

“There is absolutely no end to what that man can achieve in Gaelic football. That man can be the best player in Ireland if he wants to be. He has absolutely everything, and Oisin’s not too far behind him either.”

And while those stars of the future shone brightly - Cian McConville’s cameo from the bench was a joy to behold too - yesterday was also a day to remember for the older heads in the Cross dressing.

Captain Aaron Kernan and Johnny Hanratty, in particular, continue to roll back the years, driving this team forward. Indeed, it is hard to believe Hanratty only returned to the fold during the summer months, such was his influence in the engine room yesterday.

Yet, despite the familiar scenes of black and amber celebration at the end, the contribution of Ballymacnab towards a brilliant spectacle should not be forgotten.

Bernie Murray’s men oozed class at times, especially in the first half when they flew out of the blocks and steamrollered into Cross.

Jack Grugan’s thunderbolt from the edge of the square saw the Athletic Grounds draw a collective breath seven minutes in as he evaded two challenges before lashing low into the corner of Jamie McEvoy’s net.

Now trailing 1-3 to 0-1, that goal sparked Cross into life as they hit back through Johnny McKeever and three points from Kyle Carragher – the last after a Padraig Stuttard shot at goal had been well saved by Sean Hughes.

With Oisin O’Neill temporarily ruling the skies, the ’Nab started working the ball out from deep, with long raking balls finding the clever movement of Jack Grugan. Every time he would feint to go one way before turning the other and lashing over. Every time it worked.

Hanratty and the older O’Neill were leading the resistance but with everything Grugan touched turning to gold, Ballymacnab took a deserved 1-11 to 0-11 lead in at the break.

Kieran Hughes played a huge role in keeping the Round Towers’ noses in front after the break but as the minutes passed by, so grew Rian O’Neill’s grip on the game. He finished up with five points, two from frees, but it was his bursts from deep that Ballymacnab just couldn’t get a handle on.

It was fitting that it was he who drew Crossmaglen level in the 48th minute before McKeever put them ahead for the first time. A huge roar went up from the Cross support – there would be no going back.

Young McConville, who helped the club to the county minor crown earlier this month, ran tired legs ragged and produced two finishes his father, former Cross and Armagh forward Jim, would have prized.

Ballymacnab kept looking for that goal that could turn the game, but it never came as they were picked them off on the break time and again to leave a six point gap on the scoreboard that was harsh when all was said and done.

Not that Cross will care – that their name is on the trophy for the first time in three years, that’s what matters.

A titanic clash with Tyrone champions Coalisland back at the Athletic Grounds awaits in a fortnight’s time – the next step on yet another Crossmaglen odyssey. Who knows where it will end?

Crossmaglen: J McEvoy; R Kelly, A Farrelly, G Carragher; A Kernan (0-3), J Morgan, P Hughes (0-1); S Morris, O O’Neill (0-2); J McKeever (0-3), J Hanratty (0-4), M McNamee; P Stuttard (0-1), R O’Neill (0-5, 0-2 frees), K Carragher (0-3). Subs: C McConville (0-2) for NcNamee (34), C Cumiskey for G Carragher (45), D McKenna for Hanratty (58), A Rushe for Stuttard (60), M Boyce for McKeever (60+5), M McCabe for K Carragher (60+6)

Yellow card: J Hanratty (56)

Ballymacnab: S Hughes; C Connolly, R Kennedy, R Gribben; M Beagan, P Crilly, J Gray; P Gribben, P Meegan; K Hughes (0-4), O McGivern (0-1), R Watters; R Grugan (0-2, 0-2 frees), J Grugan (1-6, 0-1 free), G McParland (0-2, 0-1 45). Subs: B McCone for Hughes (50), B Toner for Watters (50), C McGivern for Hughes (52), C Loughran for McGivern (56)

Yellow card: P Meegan (19)

Referee: O Hearty (Belleek)

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