McKeown all fired up for Cross' All-Ireland challenge
Crossmaglen Rangers will this week launch what experienced defender Paul McKeown describes as their "toughest ever" build-up to an All-Ireland club challenge.
The perennial Armagh champions have already captured six national prizes but with Galway and Connacht champions Castlebar Mitchels looming in the forthcoming All-Ireland semi-final, the straight-talking McKeown has laid it firmly on the line for his colleagues as they prepare for an intensive six-week fitness regime.
"Our form in the Armagh championship was not what we wanted it to be, even though we won another title," said McKeown.
"Then in the Ulster Club championship we were extended by Cargin before being given a stiffer test by Kilcoo and then we were really pushed to the pin of our collar by Scotstown in the final which went to extra-time."
Now McKeown is hoping that the Rangers can acquire an even greater level of fitness for what he believes will be a "massive assignment" against a Castlebar side that impressed when powering to the Connacht title by beating reigning All-Ireland club champions Corofin in the final.
"I think that our fitness and strength and conditioning people will be pushing us very hard over the coming weeks and I feel we are in for our toughest ever build-up to a game," insisted McKeown.
"Our joint managers Oisin McConville and John McEntee have been there and done that in terms of winning All-Ireland club medals so they know what it takes and they won't be sparing us.
"But there is no other way to success and all the boys recognise that. This match against what is a very good Castlebar side is a massive assignment for us."
And McKeown suggests that Crossmaglen's hunger for a return to All-Ireland final action will prove a huge spur in their bid to land the Andy Merrigan Cup yet again.
"Let's be honest, we have missed being involved in recent finals," admitted McKeown.
"It's a few years since we have been there and we have definitely missed it. While it's terrific for this bunch of players to have won an Ulster title, I know they now want to go and land the All-Ireland honour.
"Every club player recognises that there is no better place to be on St Patrick's Day than playing for the honour of your club in Croke Park."
With Jamie Clarke back on board and no major injury worries, the Rangers have also gained greater confidence as 2015 unfolded following their tentative start to the season but McKeown stresses that the challenge of lifting the All-Ireland trophy will make huge demands on the players.
"We have to be ready for this and that's why the next six weeks are so important in terms of our preparations," he added.
"We have got Christmas over us, we'll get the New Year in but already we are very strongly focused on landing the All-Ireland club honour.
"Some of the boys in the side like me have been fortunate enough to sample success at this level but for other boys this is a big opportunity and their great enthusiasm and commitment is helping to drive the rest of us on in training."
And McKeown believes that the resources on the Rangers bench could prove crucial in their push for glory.
"When you look at our recent games in the Ulster Club championship, you can see the part played by people who have come off the bench and helped to take us over the line in games," said McKeown.
"Players like Oisin O'Neill, Jamie Clarke, Aaron Cunningham, Kyle Brennan and others have played big roles in getting us to where we are now and they and the other players in the panel have the capacity to make important contributions as we continue to move on.
"At the end of the day, the boys who are starting in the team at this point in time are really only holding the jersey for the young players who are coming after them."