Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Crossmaglen will be back

Crossmaglen's James Morgan
Crossmaglen's James Morgan

On any given Sunday as the evenings grow dank and dark, BBC commentator Owen McConnon will set out from his home in Cavan for an Ulster club match.

Most of the time, Denis Brady of Laragh and Mossy Cullen of Virginia will accompany him in the journey. Not always.

If Crossmaglen are playing however, they will have been itching for the day. They used to book their seats with Owen late on in the week, nowadays, they will have ' been onto' him by early Wednesday. Owen knows now not to allocate seats to anybody else, yet still, the boys ring and make sure. They don't want to miss Cross.

A lorry mechanic by trade, I was introduced to Mossy when I was stricken with car trouble before the Ulster club semi-final between Cross and Errigal Ciaran. He was identified as a man who knew his stuff, and volunteered to look under the bonnet.

As I stared at pistons, steel, dipsticks and a range of other things I neither understand nor recognise, I asked him his opinion of Cross. "Ah Jayz," he said, "They're legends!"

He became friendly with Oisín McConville when he owned a bar in Virginia. Nowadays, Mossy travels the length of the country to watch Cross play.

He's not the only one. Many people in Cavan and Monaghan travel over to Cross on St Patrick's nights to take in their homecomings and enjoy the craic.

Armagh is a fiercely-strong GAA county. While they have spent the last few years losing their identity at county level, Cross have remained a source of pride. In lean times, the success of the men in black and amber have been a banner to rally behind.

For all their undoubted class as a club and the incredible two generations of footballers they seamlessly moulded together over the last two decades, Cross should be recognised as the greatest. A three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles was not necessary to earn that title, just as the failure to retain the All-Ireland did not rule the Armagh team of the early '00s out of their self-defined criteria of being a 'great team'.

Yet for all the plaudits they have received, there is something troubling about some pundits – without any experience of management – holding them up as an antidote to the modern county game, with the army of nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaching and sports psychology associated with the game at that level.

Pat Spillane said at a chat night last summer in Killyclogher that he could win an All-Ireland with any reasonably fit players, without a bloated backroom team and by playing like Crossmaglen. Joe Brolly says that Crossmaglen do not do weights and are forbidden from taking a solo on the ball. They are being entertainingly wrong.

Cross have a set-up the envy of some county teams, with athletics coach Seamus McGeown, occasional input from Billy Walsh and access to as much sports psychology as they want.

In any case, they are surrounded by serial winners on the pitch and on the line. They have no reason to have hang-ups as winning is part of their make-up and culture.

Last Saturday in Mullingar, Cross were beaten by a team that were not necessarily better than them, but ready for them.

It is said that trying to take Cross on in a game of football is akin to footballing hari-kari. By that, it is implied that any opposition is best going with low-risk football, not trying to match the Rangers in their kick-passing game.

Yet Brigid's moved the ball just as smartly as Cross. In both halves of football, Cross bounced and solo-ed the ball more; the difference being that as the game slows and players tire, it is more important and prudent for teams to hold the ball more.

In the first half alone, Cross bounced or took a solo 37 times. Brigid's only took 18.

In a fractious and niggly second half with off-the-ball stuff occurring everywhere, Brigid's played the solo and bounce 29 times to Cross' 16. When they needed to hold it up, they could.

It's worth noting in other big games that Cross have been beaten, such as Kilmacud and the 2009 All-Ireland final, it was by another positive team who believed in getting the ball to the other end of the field as quick as possible.

Taking that evidence alone, it is clear that our club scene, with the benefits of a few well-timed changes to the playing rules, is in rude health. Brigid's simply lift up the baton that Cross have dropped.

And Cross themselves will be back soon enough. Owen McConnon will have to reserve a couple of seats in his car for a while yet.

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