AIB Ulster Club SFC preliminary round: Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) 1-9 Pearse Brothers, Ballybay (Monaghan) 2-11
SOMETIMES the future has no choice but to wait its turn. As they piled into the changing room at the Athletic Grounds, just across the narrow corridor from a vanquished Crossmaglen, Ballybay players clasped hands and patted the backs of any man that moved, savouring every second of a day that’s been too long coming.
Everybody else might have been thinking or talking about Kilcoo, but they weren’t. Not then anyway, not while whoops and cheers still celebrated sending the former kings of Ulster and Ireland packing. No way. Talk of the current champions could wait until morning.
After all, it was 10 long years since Ballybay even got to have a crack at Ulster. Too often the bridesmaids when the chase for the Mick Duffy Cup was wrapped up, they ended Scotstown’s hegemony three weeks ago to earn another crack.
It was an emerging Kilcoo who clipped their wings in 2012 as the wait for an Ulster championship win went on. Timing dictated that Ballybay had gone into that campaign without the talismanic Paul Finlay, whose honeymoon fell smack bang in that November window. By the time he returned, the dream was dead.
Even Finlay couldn’t have imagined the fairytale that would follow a decade down the line.
On Saturday night, the 39-year-old schemer more than made up for lost time with the kind of classy, composed display that has been his trademark throughout a distinguished career in club and county colours.
After finishing up with four points, Finlay was in and out of the tunnel just as the party was getting started, picking up the RTE man of the match award, talking to TV, journalists, being roundly sought after by well-wishers caught up in the magic of the moment.
It wasn’t nostalgia that got him the nod either as he drifted in and out of full-forward, winning ball, linking play, that ability to control the wind still in situ with frees effortlessly catching the breeze and curling over as Ballybay took command.
“He’s an inspiration to me,” smiled team-mate Ryan Wylie as leaned against the tunnel wall, “the best player I’ve ever played with.
“If you were looking at that game today you’d be thinking Vinny Corey would be calling him into the Monaghan team next year. I’m just glad for him that he’s getting to show the country what he can do because there’s no other player deserves it more than Paul.”
Corey, the same age as Finlay, will have enjoyed watching his former comrade roll back the years – but Saturday’s success was built on so much more than one man’s mastery. So much so that Kilcoo will be in doubt about what awaits on Sunday.
But that quarter-final clash in Clones will look much different to what transpired at the Athletic Grounds, where Crossmaglen’s easy-on-the-eye kicking style eventually unravelled in the face of Ballybay’s relentless running game.
The men on the line, Jerome Johnston sr and Mark Doran, have to take considerable credit for how they managed their match-ups, even if at times in the first half it looked as though Cross might cut loose.
Losing a fired up Drew Wylie to a black card just two minutes in was far from the ideal start too, with the Armagh champions making hay despite falling behind to a soft fifth minute penalty from Shane McGuinness after Daniel Caraher was tugged back by Alan Farrelly.
After a wonderful Cian McConville curler got Cross on the board, Rian O’Neill announced his arrival in emphatic style. With marker Wylie still in the sinbin, O’Neill followed in a beautiful diagonal ball from Callum Comiskey, won by Jamie Clarke.
When it was handpassed off to O’Neill on the corner of the square, it was expected that the ball would be sent into the night sky for Cross’s second score. Instead, though, the Armagh maestro rifled to the net past a stunned Julius Sniauksta in the Ballybay goal.
By the 22nd minute, and with a strong wind at their backs, Cross had moved into a 1-4 to 1-1 lead as the clever movement of Clarke and McConville causing havoc.
Yet, for all their free-flowing attacking play, the warning signs were clear from early on as the Monaghan men burst into acres of empty space time and again.
That’s how their penalty came about, while Ballybay captain Eoin McKearney saw a goalbound effort blocked by Aaron Kernan in the 11th minute. Twelve minutes later, another rapid break led to Shane McGuinness’s shot being turned around the post.
Cross were living dangerously and, as half-time approached, eventually the tide began to turn. Finlay landed two late scores - the first after a burst forward from the impressive Colm Lennon, the second a free – to narrow the gap to a point at the break.
And after losing Dara O’Callaghan to a black card just before half-time, Cross paid a heavy price upon the resumption as Ballybay grabbed the game by the scruff in that opening 10 minutes against 14 men, and refused to let go.
“At half-time, all we said was ‘look boys, you’re a point behind, you’ve heard everything in the last couple of weeks about how good they are – have you seen anything out there that’s telling you they’re superior to us?’” said joint manager Doran.
“I says ‘don’t answer that - do your talking in the second half’. For a 20 minute spell at the start of the second half, we were outstanding.”
Flying out of the traps, they outscored Crossmaglen 1-7 to just one point in the opening 15 minutes, the second goal coming from substitute Aaron Toner as he dived to fist into an empty net after Shane McGuinness had drawn ’keeper Conor Deery.
The Monaghan champions were simply irresistible in this period, with Dessie Ward covering every blade of grass, scoring two points and dictating the tempo in a supreme second half performance.
Cavan native Michael Hannon and Ryan Wylie snuffed out the threat of Clarke and McConville, while Wylie’s big brother Drew went to war with O’Neill. All over the field, Ballybay were simply better as they held off a late Cross rally to seal the deal.
Back in Ulster for the first time since 2019, the south Armagh men will hope – in fact, believe – that better days are to come.
“For over half the team it was their first time starting an Ulster championship match,” said boss Stephen Kernan.
“When you have 10 players making a start in an Ulster Championship game, live on RTE, all under 20 years of age, it bodes well but it only bodes well if they learn from it.
“I don’t think this is the pinnacle of their career - they’re at the beginning of their journey and I hope they get many more days playing in senior championship with Armagh and Ulster championship.”
The night, though, belonged to Ballybay. And by yesterday morning, well, maybe then thoughts could turn to the challenge that lies ahead.
Crossmaglen: C Deery; T O'Callaghan, A Farrelly, T Duffy; A Kernan, J Morgan, P Hughes; S Morris, R O’Neill (1-1); D O’Callaghan, C Cumiskey, C Finnegan (0-2); R Fitzpatrick (0-2), C McConville (0-3, 0-2 frees), J Clarke (0-1). Subs: C Crowley for Farrelly (37), D Cumiskey for D O'Callaghan (47), O McKeown for Hughes (52)
Black card: D O’Callaghan (30-40)
Yellow cards: C Finnegan (27), R O’Neill (29), J Clarke (47)
Ballybay: J Sniauksta; T McSkean, M Hannon, R Wylie; E McKearney, C Lennon, S Monaghan; D Wylie (0-1), D Ward (0-2); C Galligan, S McGuinness (1-2, 1-0 pen), D Caraher; P Finlay (0-4, 0-3 frees), C McGuinness (0-1, mark), T Kerr (0-1). Subs: A Toner (1-0) for Galligan (HT), T Keenan for Caraher (55), P O’Neill for S McGuinness (62), B Wylie for Monaghan (60+4), S McQuillan for C McGuinness (60+4)
Black card: D Wylie (2-12)
Yellow card: C McGuinness (55)
Red card: T McSkean (60+4)
Referee: N Mooney (Cavan)