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Crossmaglen and Ballinderry set for replay

Ballinderry 1-10 Croasmaglen 1-10

Crossmaglen Rangers have kept their hopes of landing a third consecutive AIB Ulster Club football title alive – but only just.

And if the high-voltage action, drama and ration of controversy that highlighted yesterday’s tingling encounter at Brewster Park, Enniskillen is replicated in next weekend’s replay, then the euphemism ‘close season’ will surely become significantly diluted, particularly as the appetising Leinster and Munster Club deciders are also down for decision.

The climatic temperature may have hovered around an uncomfortable zero but the white heat generated by the ferocious commitment from both sides ensured that winter blues played a poor second fiddle to towering entertainment.

In a memorable contest in which collective endeavour shone like a beacon, there was still a platform for a series of quite superb individual performances.

And it’s chiefly because of a man of the match performance at midfield from David McKenna, the defensive skills of Brendan McKeown and Paul Kernan and the sublime opportunism of Michael McNamee and Oisin McConville that the Rangers dream of making it seven Ulster Club crowns in 12 years is still a live issue.

For their part, Ballinderry can point to the enormous contribution from their inspirational captain Enda Muldoon, the exquisite distribution of Conleith Gilligan and the silken finishing of Collie Devlin as sustainable plus-factors for episode two.

It was after posting five unanswered points between the 15thh and 27th minutes, with McKenna already a potent force at midfield and the Kernan brothers Aaron, Stephen and Tony all on target, that Rangers appeared to have one hand on the trophy – again. And when Ballinderry defender Conor Wilkinson became the first of three players to be red-carded by overworked referee Martin Sludden, the Derry champions looked in grave danger of being sunk without trace.

Appropriately, though, it was the magnificent Muldoon who signalled their recovery with a splendid long-range point before Devlin pocketed the first of his half-dozen scores to leave Ballinderry just two points adrift at half-time (0-6 to 0-4).

The thunderous hits, frenetic pace and flashes of sheer brilliance that adorned the first-half merely proved an aperitif for an even more absorbing second period.

Scarcely had the action recommenced than Michael McNamee fired over two points to give Rangers added comfort before he himself was ‘fired’, referee Sludden flashing the red card after he had clashed with Ballinderry substitute Michael Bell.

And when Gilligan, Devlin and James Conway trimmed the Rangers advantage with a triple-points barrage, the intensity was further stepped up.

No team thrives more under pressure than the perennial Armagh champions and when ace marksman McConville found himself staring into the whites of goalkeeper Michael Conlan’s eyes in the 53rd minute, he deftly drilled the ball into the corner of the net to put his side 1-10 to 0-8 in front.

Game, set and match to the Rangers – or so we all thought. But Ballinderry had other ideas and quickly put them into practice, having been provided with an added spur when the normally placid John McEntee was dismissed in the 55th minute.

Two further frees from Devlin kept the Oak Leaf men in touch at 1-10 to 0-10 and then the unlikely figure of full-back Niall McCusker popped up in strange surroundings – the scoring danger zone – to pilfer the glorious goal that deservedly earned his courageous side the right to fight another day.

It was drama right to the finish – a sporting package that would surely have done justice to peak time in the inter-county championship season never mind the club environment. Bring on the replay!

CROSSMAGLEN: P Hearty; B McKeown, F Bellew, P McKeown; A Kernan (0-2, both frees), J Donaldson (capt), P Kernan; T McEntee, D McKenna (0-1) ; M McNamee (0-2), J McEntee, S Kernan (0-1); T Kernan (0-1), C Short, O McConville (1-2, 0-2 frees). Subs: J Murtagh (0-1) for Short (42 mins), J Clarke for T Kernan (45 mins), S Finnegan for Bellew (54 mins). Yellow cards: A Kernan (3 mins), McNamee (11), T Kernan (31), Bellew (41). Red Cards: McNamee (40 mins), J McEntee (55 mins).

BALLINDERRY: M Conlon; D Bell, N McCusker (1-0), C Wilkinson; M McIver, K McGuckin, C Nevin; J Conway (0-1), B McGuckin; M Harney, D Conway (0-1), C Devlin (0-6, 0-3 frees); R Wilkinson, E Muldoon (0-1), C Gilligan (0-1). Subs: R McGuckin for Harney (35 mins), M Bell for C Nevin (36 mins), J Bateson for B McGuckin (50) mins Yellow cards: C Wilkinson (3 mins), J Conway (10), K McGuckin (25), B McGuckin (46), Devlin (57). Red card: C Wilkinson (30 mins).

Referee: Martin Sludden (Tyrone).

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