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Crossmaglen ace McKeown focused on title defence

By John Campbell

When Paul McKeown led Crossmaglen Rangers to the All Ireland club title last year he made a point of including in his victory speech the promise that the team would be back to defend their title “with all the skill at our command” this year.

McKeown’s vow still holds good even though his side flirted with danger in their drawn decider against Westmeath and Leinster champions Garrycastle a fortnight ago.

Today, when the sides lock horns again at Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan (5pm), corner back McKeown will lead the Rangers resistance against a Garrycastle attack that came close to making him eat his post-final words of last year.

“There is absolutely no doubt about it that after the whole hype died down our hunger just increased,” said the 23-year-old.

“I sensed it within the squad and I knew then that the boys were already strongly focussed on back-to-back titles.”

Like his colleagues, he was impressed with the athleticism, style and accuracy of Garrycastle in the first meeting, particularly the manner in which they romped into a 1-8 to 0-7 interval which, but for a few missed chances, might have become an even more pronounced advantage.

And even though the Rangers staged a stirring third-quarter revival, McKeown knows for certain now that players such as Dessie Dolan, Paul Dillon, Gary Dolan and Pat Mulvihill are capable of stretching the Rangers defensive capabilities to the limit.

And he is aware too that unless David McKenna and Johnny Hanratty get on top at midfield, their opposite numbers David O’Shaughnessy and Sean O’Donoghue have the capacity to provide a flow of possession for the Garrycastle forward division that could be translated into perhaps chilling statistics on the scoreboard.

“I think it’s important that we try to dominate in the middle third of the park in the first instance,” said McKeown.

“I believe we have more pace in our defence right now and that we can break quickly, but the bottom line is that we have to keep on top of their forwards.

“They have shown that they carry danger, particularly if good ball is fed into them.”

While he enjoyed the role of captain last year, he admits that there is slightly less pressure this time round from a personal viewpoint thus allowing him to focus more strongly on his own game.

“Last year I had responsibility for trying to ensure that every player gave full commitment for the entire match,” said McKeown.

“This time round it’s Stephen

Kernan who will be leading the side and he is very influential.

“He is a steadying influence both on and off the ball, he has loads of experience and he will be fired up now that his suspension has ended.”

The fact too that Oisin McConville, Jamie Clarke and Tony Kernan in particular are in a rich vein of form is a source of comfort.

“These are all classy forwards who know how to take a score. We just have to get the ball into their hands,” insists McKeown.

In retaining their Armagh and Ulster titles, Crossmaglen did not quite show the levels of consistency in terms of performance that joint managers Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill had hoped to see.

McKeown accepts while the management hailed the character and resilience which the side revealed in coming back to draw against Garrycastle on St Patrick’s Day, he knows no shortcomings will be tolerated tomorrow.

“Tony and Gareth have spent two years trying to get us to play to our current style,” said McKeown.

“They want us to stick to this formula and to prove ourselves. They are unlikely to tolerate too many mistakes and this will ensure that we are all on our toes. The hunger and drive are still there and a combination of these elements can take us to a win.”

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