GAA Football

All-Ireland winners wait their turn as Crossmaglen Rangers give youth a chance in Armagh semi-final win

Armagh star Rian O'Neill will be a key player when Crossmaglen Rangers take on Ballymacnab in the Orchard County final. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

BEING able to hold All-Ireland winners like Kyle Carragher, Tony Kernan and Johnny Hanratty on the bench until the second half of Saturday night's Armagh SFC semi-final win over Maghery illustrated the fierce competition for places that exists in the Crossmaglen squad.

Former Armagh stars Carragher, Kernan and Hanratty had to bide their time as youngsters like Cian McConville, Colin O'Connor and Johnny McKeever started a dofight of a semi-final at the wet and windy Athletic Grounds against a determined Maghery outfit that had ended Crossmaglen's six in-a-row run back in 2016.

Cross seven-point winners and their manager Kieran Donnelly has done well to manage a changing of the guard as the south Armagh outfit – champions again last year after a two-season break – strive to retain the Gerry Fagan Cup.

“Some of the boys are probably disappointed that they weren't starting but you have to give youth a chance,” said Donnelly.

“That was the first semi-final for some of the boys and you have to go that road – you have to produce new players. If you aren't giving them a chance what happens? They clear off.

“The young lads did their job and there is more in them and they are going to learn from the older players. You can't beat a dressingroom where you have so many players who have won so much and can give that experience back to the young players. You can't buy that.

“It doesn't mean we're going to win the next game but if you can get a wee bit of that it helps.

“Johnny McKeever and Colin O'Connor have come in; Chris Crowley (Carlow born but resident in Crossmaglen) has come in. Cian McConville was a sub last year and now he's starting and at the end young Patsy Finnegan came on – he's only 17 and-a-half and he came on to get a wee bit of experience.

“That's what it's all about, bringing them on, but you still can't beat the experienced players. Look at Aaron Kernan and these boys, they're a credit to the club, they're the leaders and boys that everybody else looks up to.”

It's easy to forget that brothers Oisin and Rian O'Neill are still at the start of their careers with club and county. Oisin scored both Crossmaglen goals in their 2-9 to 0-8 win. The first came after just 63 seconds and the other killed off Maghery in the closing stages.

“Oisin had a serious injury last year and he's put in a serious amount of work trying to get back to the level he's at now,” explained Donnelly.

“He would probably tell you he wants to get a bit further but last year he was playing on one leg and, to be honest, he shouldn't have been playing at all. He's getting back now and he is a massive player, he is a top footballer and Rian is alongside him. What more can you say about him?

“Rian is a leader, for such a young age, he is a real leader.”

The scene is set for a repeat of last year's final on October 20. In 2019, Crossmaglen won 0-24 to 1-15 against a Ballymacnab Round Towers outfit in their second ever final at senior level.

‘The 'Nab' needed extra-time to get past Granemore in their semi-final in Saturday night's curtainraiser and Donnelly is expecting another competitive final on October 20.

“I've watched the game last year several times and it was a brilliant final,” he said.

“In one period of the game we got a bit of luck and it changed. The 'Nab will be looking forward to it and why wouldn't they? It will be a brilliant occasion again and they will be up for it.

“They have a great chance of winning it, it's 50-50. Everybody will make us favourites because it's Cross again but we're going to have to get our heads down and work seriously hard or we'll be caught out, that's the bottom line.”

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