Third time lucky? Crossmaglen braced for Granemore battle in Armagh Championship showdown
THEIR black and amber jerseys come with the favourites' tag sewn into the lining so weight of expectation is nothing new for Crossmaglen.
On Sunday, the Rangers will start as favourites against a Granemore side contesting their club's first-ever Armagh senior championship decider and Stephen Kernan's men will expect a full-on battle from the underdogs at the Athletic Grounds.
Cross have been the bookies' favourites in the last two finals but Maghery (in 2020) and, last year, Clann Eireann ripped up the scripts meaning it's three years' now since the Gerry Fegan Cup spent a winter at Oliver Plunkett Park.
“We'll not be taking Granemore for granted on Sunday, that's for sure,” says Crossmaglen's Rian O'Neill.
“They're a big, strong, physical team and they've been in Division One for as long as I've been playing senior football. It's always a tough game against them and we know they're not turning up to the final to make up the numbers, they're coming to win the county title.
“You don't get anything easy against them, they won't lie down against us and any time we've played them it's been a big challenge so we'll have to be at the top of our game on Sunday.”
O'Neill was an Armagh championship winner in 2018 and again the following year. Losing the last two finals were hammerblows for the club and this season Cross looked in grave danger of a first round exit against Silverbridge but produced a grandstand finish to win.
They did the same, in extra-time, in their quarter-final against Dromintee but after those two patchy performances, Cross found their form spectacularly in the semi-final and blew away hoodoo team Maghery to reach Sunday's final against a Granemore side that have accounted for Pearse Og, Mullaghbawn and then Killeavy.
“Maghery were a bogey team for us over the last few years and we just couldn't get past them,” said O'Neill.
“We played well, we had a good start and then we were able to pick them off but now we need to kick on from it.”
Oisin O'Neill won't be fit for the decider as he recovers from an Achilles injury and Rian has taken his brother's place as a midfield playmaker alongside skipper Stephen Morris and talented youngster Ronan Fitzpatrick. O'Neill's deeper role has created space up front for forwards Jamie Clarke and Cian McConville to exploit and both made the most of it against Maghery.
“There's been a bit of a buzz since the semi-final,” said O'Neill.
“But we're not getting ahead of ourselves, we know we didn't produce in the last two finals so we need to keep our feet on the ground and hopefully we'll do the business on Sunday.
“We haven't won the championship for the last two years and that made people realise that we can never take winning Armagh for granted. It's up to us to lay down a marker and get over the line in a tight game.”
ARMAGH will have to do it the hard way in the Ulster Championship next season after they were paired with Antrim in the preliminary round.
The longer, four-game route to the Anglo-Celt final has traditionally been a precarious one and the Orchardmen start out against the Andy McEntee-managed Saffrons in a repeat of the counties' 2021 quarter-final meeting.
“Antrim pushed us for the whole first half and until midway through the second half,” recalled Rian O'Neill.
“We got a few goals near the end but it was a tough game and it's always competitive no matter who you play in Ulster.”
Donegal accounted for Armagh with the minimum of fuss in the Ulster Championship last season but Kieran McGeeney's men found their feet in the Qualifiers and avenged that loss emphatically on their way to a thrilling All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway.
O'Neill's superb free forced extra-time but the Tribesmen won in the penalty shootout that followed it. Next year, Armagh will certainly be among the fancied teams in Ulster.
The county's last Anglo-Celt came back in 2008 and the Orchardmen haven't featured in a final since.
“It would mean the world to the players and everyone in Armagh to win Ulster,” said O'Neill.
“We'll want to hit the ground running and give the best account of ourselves that we can.”