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Cross beaten by their own system in the final push

By Declan Bogue

There are sacred cows in the GAA, and one of the most politically-incorrect ones to slaughter is the style of football Crossmaglen Rangers play.

Which is why you will probably never have seen a column outlining any criticisms of it.

And you won't here either, but any sensible assessment of Sunday's defeat to Gaoth Dobhair will demonstrate that for this game in particular, the traditional Cross style was not fit for purpose.

To most, this would be heresy. As good as Crossmaglen have been for football, the praise lavished on them has approached propaganda levels.

Serious football men within that club are uneasy with this.

In fact, Joe Kernan's tactic of bringing Colm O'Neill back to operate as a third midfielder and drop Tony McEntee as a defensive screen in the late '90s was the prototype of the modern-day sweeper.

Even in this Ulster club campaign, when Coalisland lost two players to red cards, Crossmaglen deployed their spare men as sweepers.

After Sunday's defeat, Cross co-manager Donal Murtagh stated: "We make no apologies for going out to play football the way we play it, and today it wasn't our day."

It wasn't their day because they came up with a team that, while they maintained a structured defence with Eamon McGee and Dan McBride as sweepers, they had a number of forwards creating an overlap.

Knowing that Crossmaglen wanted to play man-for-man and maintain a high press plays into the hands of a gifted playmaker such as Odhran MacNiallais, when he has the pace and skills of Cian Mulligan, Dara OBaoill, Michael Carroll and Odhran McFadden-Ferry bombing up the pitch.

A couple of examples. In the 10th minute, MacNiallais fed a fist pass over the reach of Dara OBaoill's marker, Stephen Morris.

OBaoill collected and drove straight for the goals, and with the Gaoth Dobhair attackers running to the wings their markers followed, rather than maintain a zonal defence.

The result was OBaoill given a free shot and he took his goal well.

Two minutes later and, with that warning, Eamon McGee was sent clear and only for the retreating Garvan Carragher clipping his heels the defence was wide open.

Despite those warnings, a minute later Naoise OBaoill laid off a ball to Dara OBaoill with nothing on towards the sideline.

Given he wasn't marked, he was able to run 60 metres unchallenged and finished again to the net.

Gaoth Dobhair manager Mervyn O'Donnell had identified the rigidity of Crossmaglen's gameplan and exposed it.

"There was a massive space between the midfield area and the full-forward line and they were inviting us into it and maybe making us look better than what we were," he said afterwards.

"I suppose we did our video analysis and everything else, but we didn't expect to see as much space between the forwards and the midfield."

The general Gaelic football public get squeamish when you talk about varying styles of play, as if there should only be one means of playing, and the game is cheapened by deviating from this.

But just as 'styles make fights' in boxing, styles also make football matches. The running game is ingrained in Gaoth Dobhair, although with MacNiallais on your side and such effective target men as Kevin Cassidy (left) and James Carroll, they can use the long-range kick pass very well.

There are historical reasons why this style is popular in Donegal, and nothing makes more sense to consider that Gaoth Dobhair - the dominant side throughout the '40s and '50s in Donegal - popularised an early form of 'running game', which concentrated on retaining possession through handpassing.

The reason for this couldn't be more simple.

Their pitch in Magheragallan is merely yards from the beach, and the gale blowing off the Atlantic is almost guaranteed all year round.

It is the balance of this Gaoth Dobhair side that has the bookmakers pricing them up as favourites to beat Scotstown.

As for Crossmaglen, seasoned observers have been impressed with how this side delivered an Armagh Championship, without the talents of Jamie Clarke up front and Paul McKeown at the back, who - it should be said - would have made a huge difference to the defence on Sunday.

They also have a number of young players such as Jamie McEvoy and Cian McConville that will grow from this year's experience, while Rian and Oisin O'Neill will develop into hugely dominant figures.

But as for the myth around their philosophy?

It could be gone for good.

Belfast Telegraph

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