Armagh champions Crossmaglen take on John McEntee Clontribret in mouth-watering Ulster battle
Ulster club SFC quarter-final: Crossmaglen (Armagh) v Clontibret (Monaghan) (tonight, The Athletic Grounds, 7pm, live on BBC Sport NI website)
THESE near neighbours have met twice in Ulster and on both occasions – 2006 and 2007 – only a point separated them in thrilling battles.
Typically, Cross got over the line on both occasions but they will have their work cut out if they are to make it three in-a-row in Armagh tomorrow.
“I think John McEntee, Tony McEntee and Oisin McConville got together for a 10-minute spell in the
second half and that probably pulled us out of the fire,’’ remarked Cross manager Donal Murtagh after his men had won by a nose in the first of those meetings 13 years ago. Four months later they were All-Ireland champions.
Tony Kernan and Johnny Hanratty – impact subs these days – both started that game and Crossmaglen’s other survivor tonight is of course ‘John Mc’, now manager of a Clontibret side that includes 2006 veterans in Dessie Mone, Vinny Corey and Eoin and Colm Greenan.
A great deal has been written and said about McEntee’s involvement in this game and it is an interesting sub-plot. A Cross clubman to his core, the Armagh All-Ireland winner with the Midas Touch was at the forefront of so many Rangers successes at county, provincial and national level and after hanging up his boots he took over the bainisteoir vest and guided Cross to their last Ulster title in 2015.
Now he stands in the way of his native club’s next title but, as his former team-mates will realise, this isn’t personal, it’s strictly business.
McEntee’s role is to find a way for his side to win and – although he will not have gone around Crossmaglen asking for pointers on how Kieran Donnelly’s side sets up - he will have left no stone unturned in his preparation and will know what to expect.
He’ll know that the Crossmaglen class of 2019 has a different outlook to the one that was dismantled in Omagh last year by a counter-attacking Gweedore side that took them for four goals on the way to winning the Ulster title.
Chastened by that defeat, Cross have abandoned their gung-ho, you-score-four-we’ll-score-six attitude for a more conservative approach.
The emphasis is still on playing attacking football and kicking the ball, but with Callum Cumiskey stationed in the centre of their defence, Cross do not leave their house unguarded nowadays.
In the first half of their extraordinary Armagh SFC final win over Ballymacnab, they got men behind the ball and looked to go long and direct to talented, but isolated, full-forward Cian McConville who was double marked and struggled to hold the ball up.
It was only when they went all-in, five points down with 20 minutes to go, that Cross clicked and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. They pushed up on the Ballymacnab kick-outs and ushered through runners from their own half who tore the ’Nab defence to shreds. Cross scored 1-9 in a flash and romped to their 45th county title.
A repeat of the last third of that game will do nicely for Cross tonight, a repeat of their performance in the other two-thirds will do nicely for Clontibret.
The Monaghan champions utilise a high-energy running game and alongside the obvious talents of the peerless Conor McManus (likely to be marked by Paul Hughes), they had eight other scorers against Scotstown in their county final.
Vinny Corey remains a physical presence at full-forward alongside McManus while the workrate of Michael P O’Dowd is typical of this Clontibret side. Colm Greenan – brother of skipper Brian – operates as sweeper alongside Dessie Mone while full-back Conor Doyle could be tasked with picking up Mel Boyce and Liam Savage is likely to track McConville.
Clontibret’s biggest headache will be how to stifle the influence of the O’Neill brothers Rian and Oisin. Oisin plays furthest forward so that task could fall to Conor Boyle while Rian pops up all over the field and will across require close attention, possibly from a combination of Brian Greenan and Dessie Mone.
Both defences can be vulnerable. Cross will have noted the problems Scotstown forward Conor McCarthy caused the Clontibret defence with his pace in the Monaghan final. McCarthy should really have scored two goals - he left marker Liam Savage in his wake for the first but his shot was brilliantly blocked on the line by Boyle and then he blazed his second chance wide.
Meanwhile, Clontibret manager McEntee will have noted that both of Ballymacnab’s goals in the Orchard county final came from fairly routine long balls into the Crossmaglen square.
Both camps will sense that opportunity knocks tonight. Clontibret go into this quarter-final with the confidence gained from ending Scotstown’s drive for five in Monaghan.
Manager McEntee is as canny as they come and you sense that he is capable of coming up with a plan to topple Crossmaglen. He won’t be on the field to carry it out though and with the devastating scoring power they demonstrated against Ballymacnab, bench strength and home advantage too, the Armagh champions get the nod to progress.