Crossmaglen captain James Morgan wants better Armagh SFC outcome
WHAT was once the most predictable county football championship in the country has been reverting to type after several surprises but Crossmaglen captain James still Morgan knows not to taking anything for granted.
That's not only due to the 'what next?!' nature of 2020 but because of his previous experience as Rangers skipper: "I was captain in 2017 so I'm trying to rectify that this year.
"Maghery beat us, in the semi-final – the Harps went on and won it that year."
That was the second season in a row that Cross' did not collect the Gerry Fegan Cup, Cullyhanna having stunned them in the 2016 semis.
Two years without a county title was a 'run' that hadn't occurred since 1995, when Cross' had also been ousted in the semi-finals, by Mullaghbawn, who went on to win Ulster.
Cross' took both trophies from their south Armagh neighbours the following season, starting a streak of unprecedented success which has included 21 Armagh crowns (including the past two), 11 Ulsters, and six All-Irelands.
Only the Armagh title is up for grabs this season because of the shortened season enforced by the coronavirus crisis, but Morgan is pleased even to have that target to aim for:
"First and foremost we're glad to be back playing football. We're just grateful for the opportunity and we're enjoying every chance we get to take the field together.
"Right now we're just enjoying training, enjoying developing as a squad. We've five or six minors new onto the team so our main focus is just to gel and create that bond together.
"We're getting to know each other and in the current climate it's just about taking every opportunity you have to train together, to play football together. We're enjoying that process more than focussing on any outcome. We're trying to stay present and just enjoy that."
Adopting a 'one game at a time' approach is always sensible, especially in a knockout Championship like Armagh's, and that's a particularly fitting attitude nowadays, even if Crossmaglen sights are always set on silverware:
"It's a bit more difficult now to keep that focus. Within the unit everything is good and enjoyable, but it's about trying not to take your head up above the clouds… You see what's happened in Offaly, Laois, and Kildare [with local lockdowns] so we're just grateful we were able to fulfil this fixture and we're going to keep on playing football while we can."
A return to knockout football in the Armagh championship, after several seasons of having a 'back door' then a group format, appeals to Morgan's competitive nature, as they saw off Silverbridge by 3-10 to 1-8 on Sunday past:
"You could feel it there from the crowd, even the little crowd that was there, you could feel the energy and that atmosphere of knockout, that every ball could be your last, or it could be your last 10-minute spell. That adds to it – it adds to the nerves, it adds to the excitement, gives you that extra wee bit of edge, doesn't it?"
Cross' boss Stephen Kernan re-iterated that his team would not 'go defensive', which makes life harder for full-back Morgan and his fellow backs, but he is content with that:
"It just means you have to trust the process, trust the management, and trust that each man on the field is going to do his job and his role.
"To a certain extent in he full-back line, even in the half-back line, you have to 'man up' and take care of your individual role, rather than relying on cover or relying on someone else to help you out.
"You trust that the boys are going to pressure the ball out the field, that the forwards are going to work hard, and you're just going to concentrate on your job. That adds to the excitement too."
Morgan & Co. did that very well against the [Silverbridge] Harps, allowing them only three points from play, all inside the opening 20 minutes.
After that 'stop them scoring' work is done, the tactics are to deliver possession rapidly to an exciting bunch of attackers including Rian and Oisin O'Neill, youngsters Cian McConville and Darragh O'Callaghan, plus Mel Boyce and the experienced Tony Kernan.
"We try to get the ball to them as quickly as we can – otherwise they'd be giving out," says Morgan with a smile.
"It all comes down to hard work. The hardest-working team always wins the game. If we can work in defence and getting the ball up to the boys, and they can work hard to put the ball dead before the other team gets back, that's really what it comes down to."
Mullaghbawn are the next opponents, back in the Athletic Grounds this Sunday afternoon, but much has changed over a quarter-century.
"It's a little unknown," acknowledges Morgan, "it's been a while since we've played Mullaghbawn. They've a couple of good players down with the county.
"Time will tell – it's a very quick turnaround, you don't get much of a chance to do your homework or explore the other team too much, you just have to concentrate on yourself and try to implement your own game-plan.
"It's just about enjoying each Championship match and hope that they keep coming."
After the Armagh SFC, Morgan aims to keep playing, with the county, with an Ulster quarter-final against Derry: "It's difficult not to think too far ahead but further down the line that'll be something else to, hopefully, look forward to. If everything stays as it is we'll get an opportunity to play Championship football, which is going to be great too."