GAA Football

Heavyweight rivals Gweedore and Crossmaglen all set for an Ulster Championship classic

Odhran MacNiallais (pictured) and Odhran McFadden return to action for Gweedore tomorrow
Andy Watters

Ulster Club Senior Football Championship semi-final: Gweedore (Donegal) v Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) (tomorrow, Healy Park, Omagh, 3.30pm)

BY the time dusk falls on Healy Park tomorrow, this heavyweight clash could have developed into an Ulster classic between evenly matched sides stacked with experience and skill.

In one corner are Armagh champions Crossmaglen – finding their feet again on the Ulster stage after two seasons watching from the bleachers. They field evergreen Aaron and Tony Kernan, Rico Kelly, Johnny Hanratty and Mickey McNamee beside the youthful exuberance of the O’Neill brothers, Oisin and Rian, Stephen Morris, Paul Hughes, James Morgan and Cian McConville.

In the other, their Donegal opponents are in their first Ulster campaign since their 2006 run was ended by a Crossmaglen juggernaut on its way to winning the All-Ireland title.

Eamonn McGee, Neil McGee and Kevin Cassidy are all survivors from that day and the Tir Chonaill champions welcome back Odhran MacNiallais and Odhran McFadden, both of whom missed the quarter-final win over Cargin with injuries.

Add the likes of Michael Carroll, Cian Mulligan and Daire and Naoise O Baoill and this is a formidable outfit but, of course, to get out of Donegal they’d have to be.

Gweedore’s style is typical of Donegal football. They play a running, handpassing game that was extremely effective against Cargin, particularly in the first half when the Gaelteacht outfit walked the ball into the net twice.

Those goals, from rejuvenated full-forward Cassidy and Cian Mulligan, left them in a commanding position but they needed a late rally to win after the Antrim champions – who hit an unanswered 1-4 – closed the gap to two points.

A third fisted goal, this time from Michael Carroll, saw Gweedore over the line but afterwards Cassidy admitted that improvement was required if his side was to have a realistic chance of making their first final.

“We have to look at why we let them back into it,” said Cassidy.

“That definitely won’t be good enough against Crossmaglen.”

The previous evening in Armagh, Cross had come through an abrasive battle with Tyrone’s Coalisland. The game finished with both sides down to 13 men and manager Donal Murtagh is hoping for better from his players tomorrow.

The 2006 clash with Gweedore was Murtagh’s first in the Ulster Championship and 23 seconds into it Joe Duffy had the ball in the back of his side’s net. But that was as bad as it got for the Armagh men and Cross emerged with a five-point win. Twelve years later, Murtagh would take the same again.

“Any win from now on would do,” he said.

“A one-point win is as good as anything. It’s all about getting into the next round and we didn’t play well the last day, but we managed to get over the line. Hopefully we can improve on certain aspects and make it a wee bit easier.

“They play with a lot of men around the middle sector of the field and they are fit to break out of the middle of the field with runners so we’d be hoping to be able to cope with that.

“We play a traditional 15 men in their places and we’d be hoping to drag them up the field a bit.”

Murtagh reports a clean bill of health in his squad with Tony Kernan pushing for a starting role after his substitute appearance against Coalisland.

Glenswilly (2013) were the last Tir Chonaill club to make the decider and only one Donegal representative, St Joseph’s (a now defunct amalgamation of Bundoran and Ballyshannon), has won the title.

Experienced defender Eamonn McGee confirmed that MacNiallais and McFadden will both return for Gweedore tomorrow.

“Deep down we knew we would have enough to get over Cargin,” said the 2012 All-Ireland winner.

“We had watched enough of them, we watched the county final and we had done a good bit of research on them and we said: ‘Do we take a risk with the two Odhrans?’ We kind of took a gamble with that and they’re now 100 per cent.

“They’re back to full pelt and they’re mad to get at it, mad to see where they’re at against Crossmaglen.”

Sometimes overlooked among the marquee names on the teamsheet is youngster Naoise O Baoill and McGee picked out the emerging forward for special praise.

“Wee Naoise has impressed me,” he said.

“Daire (O Baoill) has been involved with the county, Cian Mulligan and there has been a lot of talk about Kieran Gillespie but we knew what Naoise was capable of.

“He is so small and you look him and think: ‘This man’s not going to last, he’s going to come up against some brute who’s going to clean him out of it’ but he has been a big player for us.”

O Baoill has a handy knack of finding space where they appears to be none and the Cross defence will find him a handful tomorrow if he is able to get on the ball enough.

They will look to force Gweedore back and deny them the opportunity to build their attacks and, while there is experience on both sides, they hold the aces at this level and tomorrow may be a year or two too soon for Gweedore.

The south Armagh men tend to find a way to get the job done, expect them to find a way tomorrow.

Key battle

Neil McGee (Gaoth Dobhair) v Rian O’Neill (Crossmaglen)

DONEGAL full-back McGee has bested the best in the country and will be the lynchpin of the Gweedore defence tomorrow. Physical and determined, he is an underrated footballer and a dogged competitor and tomorrow he will be up against an emerging youngster who should certainly test him.

O’Neill, younger brother of midfielder Oisin and son of former Armagh and Crossmaglen full-back Gareth won’t be intimidated by his reputation.

He is tall and quick and can turn on a sixpence with the ball in his hands. In front of goal he proved himself to be a superb finisher from play and form frees and McGee will need to be at his best to limit his influence tomorrow.

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