Three-in-a-row-chasing Crossmaglen defend Armagh Championship title against determined Maghery
Cormac Leonard Armagh Senior Football Championship final: Crossmaglen Rangers v Maghery Sean McDermott’s (tomorrow, the Athletic Grounds, 4pm)
A HOWLING gale battered the Athletic Grounds when these familiar foes met at the semi-final stage last year.
Barely a minute had gone when Crossmaglen wisely launched the ball high into the wind and it carried it all the way to the Maghery square. A nightmare for any defence. There was a fumble at the back and Oisin O’Neill prodded the ball gleefully into the net. Maghery battled but Crossmaglen held the whip hand from then on.
But rewind a couple of seasons further back to 2017 and it was a different story. Maghery (reigning county champions for the first time) beat Cross not once, but twice in the Armagh championship – first in the group stage and again in the last four.
Crossmaglen haven’t lost a championship match in Armagh since. Now chasing a three in-a-row, they continue to play attractive brand of kick-passing football and although Aaron and Tony Kernan remain important players in Stephen Kernan’s side, the O’Neill’s, Rian and Oisin, midfielder Stephen Morris and forward Cian McConville are now the main men in the team.
McConville, son of former Armagh star Jim, is a real talent and he’ll have Dara O’Callaghan, another emerging young forward, beside him tomorrow. In defence, Cross can count on the inter-county quality and experience of James Morgan, Aaron Kernan and Paul Hughes
Meanwhile, Aidan Forker could be the key man for Maghery. He may have been converted into a man-marker for Armagh but Forker remains a potent threat up front for his club. Cross are not the tallest in defence and if he plays up around the goalposts with targetman Ronan Lappin in support he’ll give Maghery the cutting edge they’ll need. Stefan Forker and the speedy Brian Fox operate further out the field.
In defence, Ciaran Higgins has looked solid in the centre and David Lavery and Stephen Cusack alternate in the sweeper role. James Lavery remains a dominant presence midfield where he’ll be up against Morris.
There are unconfirmed rumours that Morris and Oisin O’Neill may not be fit for tomorrow’s clash but Maghery manager Finnian Moriarty will plan for a full-strength Rangers line-up. Moriarty will be without Ben Crealey and Maghery skipper David Lavery will know how the Armagh midfielder must feel to miss out.
He watched from the stand nursing a broken leg last year but returned to action against Cross in the League opener back in August.
“They got the better of us last year,” Lavery recalled.
“We were well and truly beaten and a lot of it was down to faults of our own. We’re under no illusions that we have a massive job on Sunday but we’ll make sure we perform a lot better than we did last year.
“Both teams are going into it aware of the jobs they have to do but, for us, it doesn’t who we’re up against on Sunday, we’re going in with the same attitude: that we’ll find a way to get over the line.”
To get to their third final in five seasons, Maghery have accounted for Dromintee, Clann Eireann (after extra-time) and Pearse Og. That quarter-final win over the Ogs was probably the side’s most impressive display of the campaign.
“We had a good win against the Ogs but we scraped past Clann Eireann and we could easily have gone out that day,” said Lavery.
“We know that we start on a new page on Sunday and everybody has to perform. We can’t get away with an average performance, everybody has to perform at their best.”
It’s a new page for both teams. They’ve beaten each other in recent campaigns hut that was then, this is now. However, one stat towers above all the rest: Crossmaglen do not lose finals.
The last time the south Armagh men lost a county decider was 1982 and that is no accident. There is a resilience and a footballing sixth sense in the Crossmaglen club that seems to be passed down from team to team and it makes the Rangers a very tough nut to crack.
Stephen Kernan’s men cruised past Silverbridge and Mullaghbawn in their first two games but got a real scare against Neil Coulter’s Killeavy in their semi-final. They lost Aaron Kernan and Callum Cumiskey with injuries and Tony Kernan to a red card but still managed to wriggle off the hook thanks to points from two of their rookies.
The stage is set for a thrilling encounter between the two best sides in the county and engrossing battles are in store all over the field. Crossmaglen don’t lose finals but could they lose this one? Yes but the south Armagh men always find a way to win and they should do again by a point or two tomorrow.
Paths to the final:
Crossmaglen 3-10 Silverbridge 1-8
Crossmaglen 4-18 Mullaghbawn 0-10
Crossmaglen 0-15 Killeavy 0-13
Maghery 1-13 Dromintee 1-9
Maghery 0-13 Clann Eireann 0-12
Maghery 1-12 Pearse Og 0-10