Resilient Cross reach the big stage again in the Ulster final against Scotsdown
Kilcoo 0-8 Crossmaglen 0-12
No fewer than 9,591 souls shuffled through the gates of Pairc Esler in Newry to see Crossmaglen book their place in the Ulster final against Scotstown.
The backstory, of all the rows and the barbs and insults fired between them had piqued the interest of many neutrals in the ground, on an evening that the prospect of a warm couch could not deter the bumper attendance.
Even though the stand was stuffed a full hour before throw-in with the rest of the fans directed to the open terrace opposite, it was not a classic. Semi-finals rarely are but Cross don't care.
Prior to this game, Kilcoo manager Paul McIver talked about Crossmaglen's tendency to do the simple things right. How true that was as they swept the Down champions aside to make it to their first Ulster club decider since 2012.
The three-year period can almost be seen as a relative famine, the last time they endured a spell like that since 2004, but the qualities they showed here harked back to an era when their present day joint-managers were two leading figures of their obstinacy.
With three minutes left of the first half, they had one single score to Kilcoo's three.
Although they were on top in the middle sector, they were finding Kilcoo increasingly difficult to break down and hit no fewer than nine first half wides.
Paul Hughes, as he can in these fixtures, nipped upfield in a raid from the full-back line to score a fine point and end 19 barren minutes. When Tony Kernan converted a free five minutes later that Paul McKeown earned by way of a Ryan Johnston foul, they were on level terms, 0-3 each at the interval.
John McEntee and Oisin McConville resisted the temptation to make changes at that point, sending out the same fifteen. It took them five minutes to equal their first half tally, another ten to double it and by then, Cross were five points up.
Given the shared history of these two, the potential was there for some nastiness. However, while there appeared to be no shortage of verbals going on between the players during stoppages, Kilcoo brought little of the fight that we witnessed two years ago when they beat Cross in extra time after a replay. With conditions sticky and the pitch slightly soft, this aided Crossmaglen with their powerful set of players. The barrel-chested Johnny Hanratty was the dominant figure in the middle, Aaron Kernan could not be contained during his sallies upfield, while Tony Kernan grew into the game as a creative force having been responsible for three first half wides.
The second half scores began when Oisin O'Neill recovered some sloppy personal ball handling to slice a point off the outside of his right boot. A dangerous run from Stephen Kernan was only halted by a high challenge by Niall Branagan, who rather astonishingly escaped a card from the otherwise excellent referee Noel Mooney, with brother Aaron converting the free.
After another Tony Kernan free, he delivered a slick handpass inside to Rico Kelly, who crashed the ball off the post. Kilcoo looked particularly uneasy, without the means of stemming the flow of the game. A low driven ball inside by Tony Kernan was finished by Kyle Carragher, and both Kernan free-takers added to their tally. Five points up, they were not going to be caught.
Kilcoo were to hit five points themselves in the final quarter and outscore Cross, but they simply had left themselves too much to do.
In the first half, they were reluctant to kick ball in to their two-man forward line of Conor Laverty and Jerome Johnston. In the second half, they placed the comparably giant Paul Greenan in closer to goal, but the quality of the ball deteriorated.
With Paul Devlin having to retire injured in the first half, Paul Hughes ensured Laverty's good work was restricted to outside his scoring range, while James Morgan physically dominated Jerome Johnston.
There was a moment or two, however, when there appeared to be a kick in Kilcoo. Darragh O'Hanlon made a big bust through the centre and arrowed a point over. A snipe from Laverty set up Martin Devlin for a point.
On one of the few occasions Ryan Johnston got to showcase his running power, Aaron Kernan was forced into a cynical challenge with O'Hanlon pointing the free, and added another three minutes later to leave the proverbial kick of the ball in it with two minutes remaining.
However in the meantime Jamie Clarke had entered the field.
With his first touch he put Rico Kelly in space to kick a point, and when Carragher nailed his third point in injury-time, defender Paul McKeown indulged in some fist-pumping towards the stand, knowing that they were home and hosed.
CROSSMAGLEN: P Hearty (C); J Morgan, A Rushe, P Hughes 0-1; M Aherne, P McKeown, A Kernan 0-3, 2f; J Hanratty, A Cunningham; M McNamee, S Kernan, T Kernan 0-3, 3f; O O'Neill 0-1, R Kelly 0-1, K Carragher 0-3. Subs: K Brennan for O'Neill (48m), J Murtagh for Cunningham (49m), J Clarke for McNamee (56m), C Cumiskey for Carragher (61m)
Yellow cards: Hanratty (47m), T Kernan (50m), A Kernan (56m)
Black cards: S Finnegan for Rushe (58), D McConville for S Kernan (61)
Red cards: 0
KILCOO: S Kane; N Branagan, Aidan Branagan (C), D Branagan; D Ward, Aaron Branagan, D O'Hanlon 0-5, 4f; J McClean, F McGreevy; R Johnston 0-1, P Devlin, A Morgan; J Johnston 0-1, 1f, P Greenan, C Laverty. Subs: M Devlin 0-1, for P Devlin (24m), D McEvoy for F McGreevy (34m), S O'Hanlon for McClean (46m), Gerard McEvoy for Ward (56m), Gary McEvoy for Morgan (60m).
Yellow cards: Aidan Branagan (26m), N Branagan (35m), D McEvoy (42, 53m), J Johnston (52m)
Black cards: 0
Red cards: D McEvoy (53m)
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan)