Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Declan Bogue: Crossmaglen are simply the greatest

The Crossmaglen Rangers team which is chasing another Ulster senior club championship title on Sunday when they take on Kilcoo at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Back in February, Tony McEntee sat down for an interview with the Irish Examiner, and took us right back to 2009.

Crossmaglen Rangers had just lost their thirteen-year reign as Armagh champions, suffering a shock defeat — there are no other type of defeats when Cross are beaten — to Pearse Óg in the county semi-final.

The main motivation that McEntee, along with co-manager Gareth O'Neill had for taking over was, “To prevent the spiral deterioration of the club. There was a concern that we would fall and keep falling. We were conscious of what had happened to Enniskillen Gaels. For a few years there they were consistently winning their county Championship, consistently giving teams serious games in Ulster. They haven't won a county in years now. Last year they were relegated.”

It's worth remembering that particular team, ten years on from when Errigal Ciaran muscled them out of an Ulster final.

Enniskillen Gaels had beaten Cross the year before, but instead of hunkering down for the next match a week later against Castleblayney, they celebrated hard that night. Seven days later, 'Blayney caught them with punches they never saw coming.

When Fermanagh made their way to an All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone in 2003, eight players from their club played that day.

But as McEntee said, last year they were relegated. This year they stayed down. They are now a footballing irrelevance at senior level.

Naturally, these things change. Teams are meant to process cycles, go through stages and honours are generally shared out.

Apart from in Armagh, where Cross write their own rules and exist with an independent spirit.

When Brendan Devenney says that his St Eunan's side are incapable of winning a Donegal Championship playing attacking football because all the other clubs employ a blanket defence, we sympathise. It is a beloved theme of football's television pundits that if they were to manage a team, they would play the game like Crossmaglen.

In order to play like Crossmaglen, you have to feel and think like Crossmaglen. That means players such as Jamie Clarke, or David McKenna or even Michael McNamee or Kyle Carragher growing up in south Armagh, watching their neighbours win All-Ireland titles.

They have a winning culture. They can play that style because they already have that self-assurance as a birthright. Teams such as St Eunan's, who may win the Donegal title every few years are not equipped with that chutzpah. If they began to dominate in Donegal, sure they may become more expansive and may even shed the blanket.

The thing to remember is that while Crossmaglen play an attractive kick-passing game, are successful and are comfortable with that approach, it is not the only way to play. In the footballing Narnia populated by the pundits, perhaps they would like to see that. But it's impossible and it rules out the entire area of footballing tactics used to gain an advantage.

There are other things about Cross aside from their play that draws admiration. Earlier this week, McEntee spoke of how Stephen Finnegan has been dropped from the panel, for an alleged breach of discipline.

Finnegan is a county panellist but has been dropped off his clubs' squad. It is a remarkable fact.

In most clubs, a breach of discipline by a county panellist might be glossed over. At most, he may be relegated to the bench from the start of a game, only to be sent on at half-time, or even before. That action immediately weakens a manager's hand and no matter what he does after that, he will be known as the man who let the tail wag the dog.

In most clubs, they sweat over the availability of their county minors, never mind county seniors. Not in Cross though.

This is far from the first time this has happened. When they beat Mayobridge in the 2004 Ulster final, Johnny Murtagh was man-of-the-match. Working in construction, Johnny has had to go out and find his living over the last few years and ended up spending a bit of time working in America.

When he returned in January 2011, he was immediately brought into the Armagh set-up and played in the McKenna Cup. With the Rangers though, his services were not required. It didn't stop them winning the All-Ireland.

After 29 minutes of the Ulster semi-final, Aaron Cunningham was whipped off for Michael McNamee.

There is no kid gloves. There is no mollycoddling. There is a hard edge in everything they do and players have to become conditioned to it.

The alternative is to miss out on being part of the best team ever. And it's not too early to call them that.

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