Crossmaglen Rangers can never be happy with just county titles: Paul Hughes

Paul Hughes is delighted to get to play in Ulster again Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Paul Hughes is delighted to get to play in Ulster again Picture: Seamus Loughran.

EVEN though they’ve just recently reclaimed the Armagh SFC title after a three-year gap, Crossmaglen Rangers defender Paul Hughes says that it will always be in the club’s DNA to aim higher.

The south Armagh men and Monaghan champions Ballybay raise the curtain on this season’s Ulster Club SFC at The Athletic Grounds tomorrow night.

A holder of nine county championship winner’s medals and two All-Irelands, Hughes said: “Although we haven’t won an Armagh title in three years, the philosophy of ’Cross doesn’t change.

“We’re not happy just winning Armagh. Growing up, when I first came onto the team, yes, you have to win Armagh and it was a big thing for us, but it was to allow us to go on and win an Ulster or go and try and win an All-Ireland.

“That’s been the mind-set of the whole community of ‘Cross. That’s not going to change. I don’t think we’ve won an Ulster title since 2015, but that’s always the goal. Obviously those things are easier said than done.”

The last time ‘Cross competed in the provincial series in 2019, they came unstuck against Monaghan’s top dogs Clontibret in a quarter-final, managed then by Crossmaglen’s John McEntee.

Hughes is relieved to be back competing in Ulster again after suffering back-to-back county final losses to Maghery (2020) and Clann Eireann (2021) – games where the former county ace felt they’d let down the entire Crossmaglen community.

“As a group we really wanted to set the record straight for those people,” he said.

“Every county championship means a lot to you… Maybe in the past a county title was seen as a given and you kind of just had to show up and almost be handed a medal. Back then, we were competing for Ulsters and All-Irelands, and county titles maybe came a bit easier to us, even though they were still hard work as the last few years have taught us.”

Celebrations, Hughes said, were brought to an abrupt end as the squad regrouped for a training session two days after sweeping Granemore aside in the county final. The fact that it was raining during the session helped ground the new county champions a little more.

“Boys winning Armagh might have an extra few days partying, whereas we were back training on the Tuesday night,” Hughes said.

“That gets you grounded quickly and you realise we’ve won Armagh, but if you want to go on and try and do something in Ulster it’s going to take even more hard work because every team you play now is a champion in their own right.

“There aren’t going to be any easy games. That’s why it was important to get back training early because a lot of the team is still young and that championship was probably their first. It’s saying to them: ‘This is where the real hard work starts if you really want to be remembered.’”

Cian McConville shot the lights out for ‘Cross while Rian O’Neill was hugely influential in their 12-point county final victory.

Crossmaglen are still evangelical about the kicking game too, a tradition that has been keenly preserved by manager Stephen Kernan.

“It’s something Stephen is very passionate about, trying to kick the ball as much as possible,” explained Hughes.

“The way things are turning, packed defences and getting men back, sometimes it is more difficult [to kick the ball].

“We’re not stupid – we’re not going to kick it for the sake of kicking it. We try to play with a bit of pace, and even if the kick’s not on, you have to react to that what’s happening on the field.

“But it’s definitely a style that Stephen wants us to play. It’s a style every ‘Cross player is used to growing up. But you need to be respectful of how other teams are setting up.”

Ballybay ended a 10-year wait for the Monaghan county title when they overcame Scotstown in a dogged encounter a week earlier than the Armagh SFC final.

County ace Dessie Ward grabbed the all-important goal in the decider while former Monaghan players Chris McGuinness and Paul Finlay were key cogs in the Ballybay wheel.

Given that they fell to the Monaghan champions the last time they competed in Ulster, Hughes knows just how tough Saturday night’s first round game will be.

“In the past we would’ve played the likes of Scotstown and Clontibret – but we know they’re going to be a very good team.

“We previously had good encounters with Scotstown and we know how good they were. For Ballybay to beat them we know it’s going to be a tough game and they’ve players that need to be marked.

“I’ve always found down through the years that when you get into Ulster every game is a dogfight because you’re into the time of the year where the weather is getting worse and the fields are wee bit heavier and it seems to me every game turns into a bit of a dogfight and you need to be ready for that.”