McKenna goal sinks Errigal as ruthless Cross stay on track
Crossmaglen 2-10 Errigal Ciaran 0-10: It was billed as Ulster's 'rumble in the jungle' but a somewhat anti-climatic Crossmaglen victory clinched the big bragging rights in Clones and a place in their seventh provincial final in nine years.
From the black-and-amber corner came the stripey terrors from Armagh, nine-time Ulster and defending two-in-a-row All-Ireland champions.
From the challengers' corner came the Tyrone and former Ulster champions Errigal Ciaran, hoping to do an Ali to Cross' Foreman.
All the pre-match hype was how Crossmaglen had never beaten Errigal in their four-game championship history, with a three-game thriller between them 20 years ago getting particular mention.
After the opening 20 minutes it looked like history might just repeat itself as Darren and Tommy Canavan, nephews of Tyrone legend Peter, inspired Errigal to a 0-6 to 0-3 lead.
But then came a Jamie Clarke wonder-goal and, despite still trailing by a point at half-time (0-8 to 1-4), the reigning kings of club football held firm and consigned Errigal to history with one of their trademark second-half performances.
If anything it was Crossmaglen who adopted the 'rope-a-dope' strategy yesterday, absorbing everything thrown at them for the first 25 minutes and then unveiling their own killer blows.
A goal by captain David McKenna nine minutes before the final whistle was their eventual knockout punch.
But, by then, Errigal were already on the ropes and blowing hard. The losses of Daisy McDermott (suspended) and Caolan Tierney (holidays) were certainly felt – they used just one substitute.
Not for the first time Crossmaglen bounced back and ruthlessly upped the tempo and squeezed the life out of their opponents.
Errigal didn't score until 22 minutes after the restart and were held to two points in the entire second half.
The warning signs were evident when Cross kicked four terrible wides in a row just before the break.
Immediately after the restart, two quick frees and an inspirational point from veteran Oisin McConville gave them a two-point lead.
They were three ahead when John Hanratty had a shot stopped after 44 minutes but he was then involved in the build-up that immediately yielded one for his midfield partner McKenna.
"We were working well but seemed to be panicking a bit in front of goals," McKenna said.
"But in the second half we were much more clinical and composed in front of goal. We knew if we lifted the tempo they couldn't really live with us."
With Cross that doesn't just mean speeding up their attractive kicking game but also cutting out their opponents' attack at source, and Stephen Kernan, in particular, did a huge job in containing Errigal playmaker Peter Harte.
The game certainly confirmed several things.
McConville may just have turned 37 but he's still got plenty to offer. He top-scored on 0-5 and also provided vital leadership and one particularly gut-bursting defensive sprint.
Clarke will be a huge loss to the county next summer if he does decide to go travelling.
Within the opening 30 seconds, he had a shot off the crossbar and, just after they had gone three points down, he collected a marvellous long-range pass from Kernan and danced around two men to find the net.
A minute later he added a point (which referee Joe McQuillan sensibly allowed under the advantage rule) and throughout the game he was like mercury in Aidan McCrory's fingers and eventually cheered off to a rousing ovation.
Armagh fans will take some hope from Cross manager Tony McEntee's remark afterwards that "I honestly don't know if Jamie's thoroughly made up his mind yet if he's going to America.
"I know it's been reported but a lot of things can change between now and March or April," McEntee said.
"But as long as we're in the campaign Jamie's with us for sure."
What we also learnt is that Cross have enduring depth and composure.
Michael McNamee's arrival made a difference and, despite conceding midfield early on to Cormac McGinley especially, they later dominated that sector.
Paul McKeown also recovered from some early glitches to dominate defence, where Brian Horisk never got a look in from Paul Kernan, and Aaron Kernan and Martin Aherne were also prominent.
In half-back Stefan Tierney, Errigal nearly had the Man of the Match as he was brilliant throughout.
Like a lot of teams, they use a sweeper but even that couldn't stem the tide that Crossmaglen's swift kicking game can create.
"It was going to be hard to hold them when they got their purple patch, which they did in the third quarter," said Errigal boss Ronan McGuckin, who had stood aside for the quarter-final defeat of his native Ballinderry.
"But I'm still very proud of my players, they've put the club back on the map this year and that's what I'll remember from this year, not this defeat.
"We're talking about a team that's going for their third All-Ireland in-a-row," he stressed.
"Crossmaglen will go down as one of the best teams in history so they're always going to get a purple patch at some stage.
"Before the game we felt we were going to need a little bit of luck but it just didn't come."
Scorers – Crossmaglen: O McConville 0-5 (3f), J Clarke 1-1, D McKenna 1-0, P Hughes, T Kernan, A Kernan, S Kernan (f) 0-1 each. Errigal Ciaran: T Canavan, D Canavan 0-3 (1f) each, R McRory 0-2, C McGinley, P Harte 0-1 each.
Crossmaglen – K McKeown; P Hughes, P Kernan, P McKeown; A Kernan, J Morgan, M Aherne; J Hanratty, D McKenna (capt); K Carragher, S Kernan, T Kernan; J Clarke, A Cunningham, O McConville. Subs: M McNamee for Cunningham (29), K Brennan for Carragher (57), C Cumiskey for McConville (58), P Grant for Clarke (63), R Finnegan for Aherne (64).
Errigal Ciaran – J Devine; A McCrory, M McRory, ,C Quinn; S Tierney, P Harte, D Harte; C McGinley, E McGinley (capt), C McGinley, T Canavan, P Quinn; D Canavan, B Horisk, R McRory. Subs: J Kelly for Quinn (52).
Ref – J McQuillan (Cavan).
- Cliona Foley