GAA Football

'When the snowball starts rolling down the hill, it's very hard to stop': Memories of Crossmaglen's breakthrough All-Ireland

On the 25th anniversary of Crossmaglen's first All-Ireland success, Neil Loughran looks back at the journey that brought them there...

Colm O'Neill and Francie Bellew celebrate at the final whistle after beating Connachy champions Knockmore in the 1997 All-Ireland club final. Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

JOE Kernan marvels when he thinks back. Not necessarily at the titles won, or the period of unprecedented domination he helped kick-start, but at the life-cycle of a club, and a community. The people who sustain it.

Today marks 25 years since the Andy Merrigan Cup first came back to the south Armagh village of Crossmaglen, that journey up the road from Croke Park forever etched in the memories of those who made it.

Two more would follow before Kernan made the inevitable step onto the inter-county stage with Armagh, but delivering your own to the very top of the Gaelic football tree – and keeping them there - that takes some shifting when the catalogue of success is sifted through.

Yet periods of reflection can often send you off in different directions, remembering the people who were there at the outset and the generational impact those defining days still have a quarter of a century on.

Captain Jim McConville leads Crossmaglen in the parade before the 1997 All-Ireland final against Knockmore. Picture by Ann McManus

“My own boys will tell you, growing up they wanted to be Oisin McConville wanted to be Jim McConville, Colm O’Neill, Francie Bellew. Their icons were in front of them, and that’s exactly what motivates young people to be great,” said Kernan.

“When you look at the likes of Oisin who played for 17/18 years, Francie, Paul Hearty, the Macs [John and Tony McEntee]… winning was one thing, but the fact they did it for so long. Then you had Donal Murtagh went on to be manager twice, Kieran Donnelly, Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill, John Mac and Oisin, our Stephen’s manager now, Tony’s in with him as a selector.

“My own boys came in, Cian McConville’s there, the young O’Neills… it’s unbelievable. Teams come and go very quick - we’ve been beat in the last two county finals - but we’re still there, we’re still producing new players, still looking for success.

“When you see managers all over the country and the money they’re getting, and we have voluntary managers all our life. That’s just the way we are, that’s just the way we do it.

“It was all a family job, which is really what clubs are. It’s the unification of all different families, harnessing that closeness from growing up in school together, then the success is the pinnacle of it all.”

And for Kernan that family bond extended to the men who came onboard after he took up the reins in 1993, at a time when memories of Crossmaglen’s last county title were drifting off into the distance.

“They were are all ex-players, people that had been involved in the club from day nothing. Donal McKenna and Ollie McEntee were ex-team-mates of mine, we won county titles ourselves.

“Ollie, God rest him, was a great man. Donal was a great free-taker in the early ’70s - I remember one day he scored 10 points in a county semi-final. He was deadly. I used to tell him that from 51 yards or more you were bollocks, but inside that you couldn’t miss - a great character and a man with a real good football brain.

“Gerry Moley drove us all over the country, he knew all the boys from underage right up. Francie McVerry had hands like sandpaper but he gave a good rubdown. Seamie Murtagh came in and was still there up until a couple of years ago.

“These were men I grew up with, drank with, messed about with before we got all serious and took the team over. And then there was Paddy ‘the Bishop’, my bag man...”

Paddy MacNamee, as he is almost never called, didn’t kick leather for Cross but was a well-known character about the town – “always there to help,” says Kernan, “and always had a smile on his face”.

Paddy 'the Bishop' MacNamee was Joe Kernan's bag man with Crossmaglen, and remained by his side during Kernan's Armagh days. Picture by John Merry

“I’d only just retired so it was a pastime,” says MacNamee. “All the boys would’ve known me anyway from the town. I always followed it, always was hanging about it, there was no point in sitting about, I wasn’t married – I’m still not.

“You were getting out and getting away to matches… you were part of it, I suppose. Good times happened nearly straight away at that stage, with the boys winning and then going on in ’97. You got to be on first name terms with the stewards down at Croke Park eventually.

“There was a fair bit of trust. I remember one instance, a league match, we weren’t going too well that day, whatever happened. I was up in the corner and we were talking, and Joe says: ‘Houl on a minute, there’s only one manager in here’.

“You weren’t long learning that you more or less kept out of it.”

Paddy 'the Bishop' MacNamee was Joe Kernan's bag man with Crossmaglen, and remained by his side during Kernan's Armagh days. Picture by John Merry

Yet when Kernan left for Armagh in 2001, ‘Bishop’ came as part of the package. Twenty-one years on, and with his 70th birthday looming, he is still an integral part of the furniture with Kieran McGeeney’s class of 2022.

“Paddy Bishop’s the sort of guy who when he walks into a room, you immediately smile,” says Benny Tierney, goalkeeper on Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning team.

“Even if he was telling you f-off, he’s impossible not to like… just that Crossmaglen drawl and, typical Crossmaglen man too, he’d tell you nothing.

“Paddy would hand out the jerseys on the day of a match, when it came to me he’d just fling it in my direction and go ‘Tierrrrrney’. But in changing rooms, boys like Paddy are invaluable.

“He’s a guy you could never tire of meeting.”

And all these years on, the nickname has never shifted.

“Ah look, I’ll tell you what happened,” says MacNamee, “it was a bank holiday, we weren’t working, we were off in the pub. This was in the '70s, there was talk Cardinal O’Fiaich – well, he wasn’t Cardinal yet - was going to be made Bishop.

“I was going up to see him because I did know him. Not that well, but I knew him rightly. Well you know boys with a couple of drinks in them, as soon as I came back they started calling me Bishop, and that was that.

“Even with the young fellas in the county now, that’s what you get.”

Instead of hanging over the wire, ‘Bishop’ was part of the inner sanctum of a group of young men hell bent on going to the top after watching rivals Mullaghbawn – having seen off Crossmaglen along the way – become the first Armagh club to claim an Ulster crown since Clan na Gael's hat-trick of titles from 1972-'74.

It landed like a dagger to the heart.

“I’m great believer that if you don’t hurt you’re going nowhere,” said Kernan.

“The following year it was make or break for us as management, for the players… if we didn’t win the county title, we probably would’ve been put out. But we won a hard championship and as soon as we did, we told them ‘boys, we never took over this job to win a county title and, now that our friends in Mullaghbawn have won an Ulster title, there’s only one thing will beat that’.

“They were our local rivals, and it was always in our head that we had to go one better.”

A decade-long wait to bring the Gerry Fagan Cup back to Oliver Plunkett Park was emphatically ended in 1996 - with revenge served up on Tierney and Mullaghbawn along the way – before,

following two titanic tussles, Derry champions Bellaghy were finally toppled in the Ulster decider.

Now for stage three. After scraping beyond Laune Rangers, Crossmagen went into the All-Ireland final as huge underdogs against a Knockmore side who had dismantled Leinster kingpins Eire Og.

But, heading for Croke Park 25 years ago, Cross weren’t just men on a mission – this, as they saw it, was destiny.

“After the ’95 championship, Joe Kernan gave the young lads their head,” recalled full-forward Gavin Cumiskey a few months back.

“On the St Patrick’s Day we were invited to a gold watch tournament down in Ballincollig. We had a great weekend’s craic, won the tournament, and on that same day Laune Rangers were playing Eire Og in the All-Ireland club final.

“The Ballincollog chairman congratulated the boys and before he asked Joe up for a few words, he said ‘best of luck, and sure you’ll be back next year to defend your title’.

“Joe said ‘I’m sorry folks but we won’t’, and he pointed at the screen showing the match – ‘that’s where we’re going to be next year’. That’s the belief he had in us.

“We were still only a crowd of young lads after winning our first senior tournament, running around showing off these big fancy gold matches. We didn’t know where things were headed, but he did.”

Of the U10 side that came through under the watchful eye of club legend Tim Gregory, eight would start the ’97 All-Ireland final, with a further seven on the bench. A Community Games triumph in Mosney only emboldened a group whose core would go on to land a slew of U21 championships before nailing the big one.

And Knockmore had no answer on the day, as brothers Oisin and Jim McConville landed 2-8 of the 2-13 tally to announce Crossmaglen’s arrival on the national scale.

“Everybody thought it was going to be a cakewalk, but they didn’t reckon for us. We had no fear,” said Cumiskey.

“I’ll always remember the parish priest at the time, he said Mass for us before the game, and had given us guidance to go out and play hard but fair - to ‘trim the lawn’, in his words.

“When the game was over we were back in the changing room, I was sitting talking to Colm O’Rourke, who was coaching us at the time. Orla Bannon was in one corner talking to Oisin, there were a few other journalists floating about the place too when the priest burst through the door.

“‘Well done boys’, he roared, ‘you didn’t trim the lawn, you f**king ploughed it!’”

An empire was under way, though few could have predicted all that was to follow in the years ahead.

“We inherited a great bunch of young lads who came through together,” added Kernan.

“Any team that has success – and you saw it again with Kilcoo recently – a crowd of young boys come through at underage and then you’ve eight or nine new players pushing the thing on, and a new team built round them.

“After that, when the snowball starts rolling down the hill, it’s very hard to stop.”

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