Crossmaglen Rangers can find a route to victory over Castlebar Mitchel's
All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final: Castlebar Mitchel’s (Mayo) v Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) (Saturday, Kingspan Breffni Park, 6.15pm, live on TG4)
IN 2009, Crossmaglen Rangers erected a permanent memorial plaque at St Oliver Plunkett Park to commemorate their historic feat in winning 13 Armagh titles in-a-row.
Perhaps it would have been wiser to put up a blackboard… Since then, Cross have won six more consecutive county senior crowns, four Ulsters and two All-Irelands. The first words on that plaque are ‘Bua, Eachtai mora agus Gloire’: translating as ‘Victory, great achievements and glory’. It’s fitting that ‘bua’ (‘victory’) is the first word - winning is first, last, everything for Cross.
This is what Castlebar are up against on Saturday night. The Mayo and Connacht champions are an excellent side, no doubt. They’ve scored nine goals in their last three outings, including two in their provincial final against reigning All-Ireland champions Corofin - the Galway men beat the seemingly unbeatable St Vincent’s of Dublin in last year’s semi-final. Castlebar netted three against Roscommon’s Clann na nGael and four against Breaffy - O’Shea brothers et al - in the Mayo decider.
Castlebar may have beat the team that beat everyone last season. Cross won’t worry. They just tend to beat teams. An incident in the Ulster final illustrates why, when it seemed that Johnny Hanratty needed his head examined in more ways that one. With the half-time whistle about to be blown, the midfielder threw himself headfirst into a block in the centre of the pitch, even though his side had just gone three points up despite being up against a very strong wind.
Hanratty sustained a head injury that kept him out of the remainder of the final, a blow that prevented Cross pushing Rico Kelly up to full-forward, as they had done at times previously - and they also lost him to injury midway through the second-half of normal time. Yet, that Hanratty incident is one of the many reasons Cross are so successful. Their attitude is that every ball matters. Every single one.
That challenge might have prevented a score which proved crucial later, or set one up that made the difference between winning and not winning. If Crossmaglen men will put their bodies - and heads - on the line in midfield, what will they do in defence to keep out goals?
Cross are hard but usually fair. Hard-working, hard-to-beat. Darren Hughes had been pulling up trees and pulling balls out of the air to great effect at full-forward for Scotstown. However, after an early error let him in for a goal, James Morgan did that annoying man-marking job he does to such effect that Hughes eventually saw red, having not scored again himself, although he did set up Scotstown’s second goal late in extra-time.
The Rangers are no longer a massive team, but it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Joint-managers Oisin McConville and John McEntee will be well aware that, on Saturday night, their team needs to restrict the goalscoring of the likes of Neil Douglas, Barry Moran, Danny Kirby, Richie Feeney and even substitute James Durcan.
Cross have bagged just three goals in normal time over their last three outings, against Scotstown, Kilcoo, and Cargin. Yet, they have plenty of quality in attack. They’re not dependent on Jamie Clarke. Indeed, he didn’t even start the Ulster final. Their key man up front is the classy Tony Kernan, who can both create and finish. At different times, his brother Stephen, Michael McNamee, Johnny Murtagh, Kyle Carragher and young Oisin O’Neill will contribute a few scores.
Castlebar’s quality includes Mayo panellists Tom Cunniffe, Patrick Durcan and Moran, while Douglas is surely county material, bagging three goals against Breaffy and 1-2 against Corofin, managed by new Mayo boss Stephen Rochford.
Besides Morgan, though, Cross have good backs like Aaron Kernan and Pauls, Hughes and McKeown, and Aidan Rushe, who may join up with Armagh after this club campaign.
Connacht club football is strong recently, their champions either winning or reaching the All-Ireland Club SFC final in each of the past four seasons. Indeed, Castlebar are aiming for their second such appearance in three seasons, having lost out to a Diarmuid Connolly-inspired Vincent’s two years ago.
Yet, Castlebar have claimed some impressive scalps. Corofin are the second All-Ireland champs that they have dethroned, having beaten Cross’ 2013 conquerors St Brigid’s later that year, in the Connacht final, with the Roscommon men aiming for a provincial four in-a-row. In the subsequent 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, the Mitchel’s men saw off Dr Croke’s of Kerry.
Cross are aiming for their eighth final, Castlebar their third, the latter having not lost at this stage. The Rangers had only lost to Leinster champs in the semi-finals (Portlaoise in 2005, St Vincent’s in '08) before that defeat to St Brigid’s of Roscommon three years ago.
The quality of these teams is illustrated by their being the top two in the betting to lift the Andy Merrigan Cup, ahead of the other two semi-finalists, Ballyboden and Clonmel Commercials. Castlebar will be very tough, but the Crossmaglen way is finding a way to win, to victory.
PATHS TO THE ALL-IRELAND SEMI-FINAL
Armagh club first round: Crossmaglen 4-15 Granemore 1-7; round 2A: Crossmaglen 4-10 Killeavy 0-10; quarter-final: Crossmaglen 1-14 Pearse Og 2-6; semi-final: Crossmaglen 0-12 Maghery 0-9; final: Crossmaglen 2-22 Armagh Harps 0-10; Ulster club quarter-final: Crossmaglen 2-15 Cargin (Antrim) 0-13; semi-final: Kilcoo (Down) 0-8 Crossmaglen 0-12; final: Crossmaglen 2-17 Scotstown (Monaghan) 2-12 (aet).
Mayo club quarter-final: Castlebar 5-13 Aghamore 1-7; semi-final: Castlebar 4-15 Knockmore 2-12; final: Castlebar 4-10 Breaffy 0-9; Connacht club semi-final: Clann na nGael (Roscommon) 0-13 Castlebar 3-8; final: Castlebar 2-10 Corofin (Galway) 0-11.