Crossmaglen Rangers manager Joe Kernan ready for tense reunion after Kilcoo draw
Kilcoo 2-9 Crossmaglen 1-12: They may have been given a severe fright in this pulsating, teak-tough Ulster club championship quarter-final at a throbbing Pairc Esler yesterday, but it would be a foolish person indeed who would bet against Crossmaglen Rangers retaining their provincial title.
In a match spliced with thunderous hits, embellished by some spectacular scores and underpinned by both intensity and tension in equal measure, the perennial Armagh champions were put to the pin of their collar by their next-door neighbours.
But manager Joe Kernan declared afterwards that he had not been in the least surprised by the passion and endeavour that the Down champions brought to the table.
"This is what we expected. When you are the champions everyone is there to shoot you down. I thought the boys were brilliant, though. They showed great heart and tremendous character especially as we had got off to a bad start," said Kernan.
"But the heart that this team has is unbelievable. I thought maybe we had done enough to win the game in the second-half and in extra-time."
Kernan lambasted the performance of referee Barry Cassidy, though.
"Some of the refereeing decisions were incredible. This has been happening all year and the refereeing was again very poor in this game," rapped Kernan.
Rarely indeed are the Rangers, who were without Aaron Kernan and Aaron Cunningham because of injury, restricted to just one point from play before a game has reached the half-way stage. Yet that is exactly what happened yesterday, their solitary contribution to the scoreboard from live action coming just as referee Cassidy was about to sound the interval whistle.
It was Stephen Kernan who eventually found the target following a surging run and his score complemented two earlier points from frees by his brother Toner.
But long before the Kernan duo had sparked Crossmaglen's rather feeble resistance, Kilcoo had thundered out the message that they were ferociously committed to atoning for the reversal they suffered in last year's final at the hands of yesterday's opponents by swooping for an eighth minute Ryan Johnston goal and a brace of points from Darragh O'Hanlon, along with another from Gary McEvoy that sustained their 1-3 to 0-3 interval lead.
Crossmaglen's modest revival gained in momentum after the break when Tony Kernan converted two frees in the opening five minutes to take his side within one point of a Kilcoo side that appeared to have had lost much of its earlier promising sparkle.
But they became re-energised when Paul Devlin (2) and Johnston swept over scores before the wind was temporarily taken from their sails again when Stephen Kernan applied the finishing touch to Crossmaglen's goal in the 55th minute following a dreadful defensive error.
A Martin Aherne point saw the sides deadlocked at 1-7 each at the end of normal time but it was Kilcoo who struck a psychological blow when Paul Greenan fisted in their second goal in the 68th minute.
But Rangers do not do panic and Kyle Brennan looked to have tilted the scales in their favour when he pirated a brace of scores.
And when Johnny Hanratty, with his only score, and Tony Kernan with his sixth pushed the reigning kingpins into a 1-12 to 2-7 lead, Kilcoo were sagging on the ropes.
But yet again O'Hanlon stepped confidently up to the mark, firing over a fine point from a '45' and then landing the all-important last-gasp equaliser from a long-range free that set the scene for next Sunday's replay – and suffused Kilcoo manager Jim McCorry in a mixed bag of emotions.
"I was very pleased with the spirit we showed but disappointed with the manner in which we gave away that late goal. We gifted them goals in last year's Ulster final and you will always pay the penalty for this," said McCorry.
Crossmaglen Rangers: P Hearty; P Hughes, P McKeown, S Finnegan; M McNamee, G Carragher, D O'Callaghan; J Hanratty (0-1), T Kernan (0-6, all frees); P Grant, S Kernan (0-1), M Aherne (0-1); K Brennan (0-2), K Carragher, C Cumiskey (0-1). Subs: D McKenna for Brennan (43 mins), C O'Neill for McNamee (52), M Boyce for Cumiskey (55), K Brennan for Grant (65).
Kilcoo: S Kane; N Branagan, N McEvoy, D Branagan; D O'Hanlon (0-4, 0-2 frees), S O'Hanlon, G McEvoy; P Greenan (1-0), A Branagan; P Devlin (0-3, 0-1 free), A Devlin, R Johnston (1-1); J Johnston, C Laverty, G McEvoy (0-1). Subs: F McGreevy for J Johnston (24 mins), A Branagan for A Devlin (38), J McLean for McGreevy (38), Sean Devlin for G McEvoy (51), Seamus Devlin for Aaron Branagan (70), M Devlin for R Johnston (75).
Referee: Barry Cassidy (Derry).0