PUT yourself in Stephen Kernan’s shoes.
A month ago, amateur punters were falling over themselves to get money on Maghery ahead of the Armagh semi-final.
Anticipation of his Crossmaglen team’s demise spread like wildfire across Ulster.
After 18 minutes, Cross had scored 1-8. They had only taken eight shots. The way in which they capitalised on a disastrous first-minute own goal was savagely ruthless.
They battered Maghery into submission in the middle third. Referees don’t give frees in Armagh football unless they’re earned.
Cross took full advantage of that, using their physicality to strip Maghery of what little possession they could muster.
The point-taking was sublime.
Even though they’d laboured past Silverbridge in the opening round live on TG4, the Cian McConville pass for Caolan Finnegan’s goal was Crossmaglen at their best.
The vision, the telepathy between kicker and receiver, the timing and weight of the delivery into a run that the defender hadn’t even thought of, it was simply magnificent.
After back-to-back county final defeats that followed back-to-back county final wins, Kernan’s side won their third title in five years with a comfortable win over first-time finalists Granemore.
Yet expectation that they would win Ulster just because they wear the same black and amber as their gloried forefathers looked misguided long before they faced Ballybay at the weekend.
They’re still developing as a team. They still have weaknesses, particularly in defence when they’re left exposed as they often are.
Oisin O’Neill’s absence for both club and county this year has also been greatly understated. He’s a different footballer from Rian but worth every bit of his own salt.
Their recent history of a heavy 2019 defeat by Gaoth Dobhair, in which they were picked off on the counter-attack and caught for four goals, and a one-point loss to Clontibret the previous year suggested they had ground to make up.
On Saturday, Ballybay were simply better. Far more than five points.
The Monaghan men won everything at midfield and played a composed game that ripped Cross apart at times. Ballybay could have had five goals very easily.
Maybe it is that they don't have the quality of the best of the rest in Ulster.
Look, too, at the way they managed the black card period after half-time. Down a man, they just kept on doing what they’d been doing. No sweeper, no dropping back in huge numbers, no phantom head injuries.
They remain wedded to their style, for better or worse.
When they were in their pomp, they had all the elements they needed to win. Soldiers like Francie Bellew and John Donaldson were every bit as important as the McConvilles and McEntees.
They didn’t mind anyone bringing war to them.
Cross were happy to stand up for themselves, even when it meant finishing with 14 men. They had the brawn to go with the brain.
When it came to it, they had better footballers than anyone else. And the reason they won All-Ireland and Ulster club titles galore was that it was an era when better footballers shone through.
But it feels like a lot of their problem is that their style of football is no longer suited to the Ulster Club series.
Do you then criticise the Crossmaglen of 2022 for refusing to bend on their principles of attacking, kicking, traditional football, or do you criticise the game for forcing an outfit that uniquely and desperately clings to the basic skills to adapt knowing that if they don’t, they will not succeed?
When they beat Maghery, Stephen Kernan spoke about those principles, as he has done several times during his reign. He has made clear that he wants Crossmaglen to play the same football that the teams he played on did.
“People think: ‘Ah, you can’t play like that, you can’t win like that anymore against the new-age of GAA’. I’m not a great believer in playing defensive football and we’re not in Crossmaglen in general," he told The Irish News last month.
“Over the last couple of games (against Silverbridge and Dromintee) we didn’t have good starts but we had great finishes and played some outstanding football and kicked some great scores while having six forwards inter-changing and playing football, the way we like to play it.
“So that’s the challenge for us in a fortnight now: To come back to Armagh and see can we actually win the county title and play good football that gets people up in the morning and energised to go to work and come to training at night knowing they get rewards for playing the way we want to play.”
In so many ways it’s a really admirable philosophy. If there’s a naivety that has festered and spread as a result of it, that’s something they’ll have to continue to wrestle with in their own consciousness and their own clubhouse.
The observation remains that Crossmaglen have struggled, and will continue to struggle, on the provincial circuit the way things are.
Crossmaglen’s principles are the right principles.
But look at any other facet of life, particularly politics, and you find that principles aren’t really worth a damn any more.
Football, no different from society, is in a place where it doesn’t care enough about rewarding good principles, and so they become worthless.
So either the game changes or Crossmaglen have to change.
There’s something a bit depressing about taking a club that wants to play the game in the most attractive manner possible, to focus harder on the basic skills than anything else, and telling them it’s time to rip up the playbook.
If an outfit like that is to be deemed to be doing it wrong, then you start to think it has to be the game itself that's wrong.
Everyone is desperately trying to figure out what best to do with football. The back-court rules and outlawing sweepers and kickouts crossing the 45' are only adding complications to a game that doesn’t need to be complicated any more.
We’re looking past the most obvious solution: 13-a-side football.
For one it places no additional pressure on referees - if anything it makes their lives easier.
With even senior clubs struggling to field reserve teams in some cases, and smaller rural clubs eternally pressed by the 15-a-side format, there are other benefits beyond just the style issue.
But mostly it is about style.
It’s about rewarding the years of work put in to coaching young players to play with their heads up and look for the kick pass.
It feels like football offers no reward to a team that wants to play attractive football.
With all the extra space it would create, you'd think the value of building a good kicking game would be quickly realised in 13-a-side football.
If the Ulster Club now was 13-a-side, Crossmaglen still might not win it. But if they didn't, someone that looks a bit more like them maybe would.
It has to be worth a try.