Armagh and Tyrone collide as Crossmaglen host Coalisland in Ulster quarter-final clash
Ulster Senior Club Football Championship: Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) v Coalisland Na Fianna (Tyrone) (tonight, The Athletic Grounds, 7pm)
CONTRASTING footballing philosophies collide in the Cathedral City tonight as the champions of Armagh and Tyrone go head-to-head in the first of the Ulster quarter-finals.
Cross have home advantage in familiar surroundings but it’s actually a shorter journey for their opponents who make the 15-mile trip from Coalisland fresh from their victory in the ultra-competitive Tyrone championship final a fortnight ago.
Now managed by former Tyrone Allstar Damien O’Hagan, the Na Fianna outfit made a poor start to their league season and sailed close to the wind in the early rounds of the championship; beating Dromore, Errigal Ciaran and then Edendork by one, two and one points respectively to make the final.
The jury was out for the decider against Killyclogher but Coalisland produced their most fluent performance of the year to beat the Blues 2-11 to 1-7 and claim the most coveted prize in Tyrone football for the 10th time in their history and the first time since 2010.
With 2018 Allstar Padraig Hampsey the lynchpin at full-back, Coalisland operate an effective counter-attacking style, transitioning quickly between defence and attack by utilising the pace of Eoghain Hampsey (likely to mark Kyle Carragher), Stephen McNally (also an option at midfield) and Dan Fee.
Paddy McNeice (who could have James Morgan for company) is the most obvious scoring threat but Coalisland will also look to Cormac O’Hagan and towering targetman Peter McGahan for scores.
So far the Na Fianna outfit has been operating with a scoring average of 14.5 points per game while, Crossmaglen are averaging 22 points overall and almost 25 in their last four games as they reclaimed the Gerry Fagan Cup after two barren years.
In Armagh they beat defending champions Armagh Harps, Division One champions Ballymacnab and Cullyhanna, the side that ended their long winning run back in 2015.
“Cullyhanna went toe-to-toe with us as well in the semi-final and we came out the right side of that and then Ballymacnab did the same in the final,” said manager Donal Murtagh.
“Coalisland will bring something different, we’ll have to be patient and disciplined and try and break them down.
“We won’t make any rash decisions, we’ll hold the ball and wait until the opportunity arises to do something with it.”
Crossmaglen can operate a sweeper system but under Murtagh they retain their traditional footballing values, kicking the ball early, long and direct towards outstanding full-forward Rian O’Neill whose duel with Padraig Hampsey could decide the result tonight with the midfield battle of Oisin O’Neill and Jason Carberry another to watch out for.
The Cross team is packed with experienced players, none moreso than Aaron Kernan who has lost none of his pace and skill, cult hero Johnny Hanratty, full-back Rico Kelly and play-making forward Tony Kernan, who has returned from injury.
“A lot of teams out there are trying to find your weak link so they can try to exploit it,” Murtagh observed.
“They try and make runs from certain areas of the field where they think you are weaker so an awful lot of time is spent working on how to stop the opposition rather than concentrating on your own team.
“We always like to think that we play our own game and stick to that and move the ball as quickly as possible - we get the ball into the forwards and we play from there.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’d like to tighten up defensively as well. We conceded 1-15 the last day and 1-14 against Cullyhanna and I was giving out to them that it was too much.”
Both sides will be taken out of their comfort zones against unfamiliar opposition tonight and of course that is the beauty of the Ulster theatre.
The team that adapts best will win and, while they won’t have it all their own way, Crossmaglen, with their experience, proven quality and range of scoring options get the nod to advance to the semi-final stage.