Crossmaglen Rangers hungrier than ever
Crossmaglen Rangers have won five All-Ireland crowns, nine Ulster titles and 15 Armagh senior football championship prizes since 1996.
It is a record of consistency that is unlikely ever to be repeated by any other team within a similar time frame.
Year on year the Rangers continue to display a ravenous appetite for success, rigidly adhering to the high standards they have set for themselves.
They will again grace the All-Ireland club semi-finals stage today when they face Kerry and Munster champions Dr Crokes at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise.
And although their opponents include stellar players such as Colm Cooper, Eoin Brosnan and Kieran O’Leary, Crossmaglen’s fusion of silken skills and steely resolve see them thrust into the role of favourites.
That’s something to which they have long since become accustomed.
But being in pole position never breeds the slightest element of complacency within their ranks.
Joint managers Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill have ensured that their players’ feet remain firmly on the ground.
And if there have been concerns about the fitness of James Morgan, David McKenna and Paul McKeown, these have not been articulated public.
Tradition in Crossmaglen dictates that the smell of the winter green and the roar of the crowd can prove the best physiotherapist of all, hence do not expect to see too many familiar faces missing tomorrow.
Aaron Kernan, Paul Hearty, Oisin McConville, Jamie Clarke and Tony Kernan bring huge experience to a side that also includes sprightly young guns in Danny O’Callaghan, Stephen Finnegan and Paul Kernan.
The Rangers line-up has of course undergone considerable transition since 1996 but pride and ambition remain constants irrespective of the personnel who might adorn the jerseys.
Successive managers have inculcated the trademark tenacity, passion and staying power that have been the hallmarks of the club since Joe Kernan sowed the seeds of their phenomenally successful run 15 years ago.
He little thought then that four of his sons would be leading the charge for more All-Ireland honours this far down the line — indeed, there is not the slightest hint that the Rangers bubble might burst.
If success breeds success, then they simply epitomise this in the best possible manner.
They face a Dr Crokes side tomorrow that are also no strangers to success and who have shown themselves to be a formidable force.
Shackling the normally free-scoring Cooper and O’Leary will be pre-requisites if Crossmaglen hope to appear in the St Patrick’s Day final as will curbing the powerful bursts of the solid Brosnan from the heart of the defence.
But the McEntee-O’Neill management duo are not losing sight of the fact that the various sub-plots to be tackled are of considerable importance.
In overcoming a strong UCC in the Munster final, Dr Crokes laid down a marker that they are imbued with finishing qualities and no little energy.
They will come up against a side tomorrow which has more than proved itself on these twin scores time and time again.
Just what is behind Rangers’ success?
The Manager: Tony McEntee
Having won a shoal of honours with the Rangers and Armagh, Tony McEntee is one of the most decorated players in the game.
He has made a seamless transition into management and believes that pride in the jersey underpins the Rangers’ ongoing success.
“Football is akin to a religion in Crossmaglen and every young player aspires to get into the Rangers team.
“From an early age that is their goal and the players who are in the side at any given time know that,” says McEntee (pictured).
“They are role models in the community and that’s one of the reasons why they are so dedicated.
“The players are always raising the bar for themselves and challenging themselves. Football has changed and we have changed with it — we have tried to be innovative and this has stood to us.”
The Fan: Louis O’Donnell
Like many other folk from Crossmaglen, Louis O’Donnell rarely misses a match in which Rangers are involved.
And he has firm views as to the reasons for the team’s ongoing glory.
“Football is THE sport in Crossmaglen — it is not in competition with any other sports.
“Youngsters are wearing the yellow and black jersey almost from they are in the pram and their aim is to play for the team.
“Successive managers have helped to formulate the ‘Crossmaglen way’ of doing things and this has stood to us,” he said.
“The emphasis is always on playing hard, fast, open football with the aim of producing sharp, accurate finishing.
“There is absolute discipline and determination within the squad and this ensures that the highest standards are maintained both on and off the field.”
The Player: Oisin McConville
Oisin McConville holds the distinction of having played in every championship match in which Crossmaglen have been engaged since 1997.
He scored the all-important goal for Armagh in their 2002 All-Ireland final triumph and remains one of the highest individual scorers in the history of Ulster GAA. And he is in no doubt as to just why the Rangers have remained at the top of the tree.
“I believe that our under-age structures over the years have been absolutely superb,” he said.
“We have very dedicated coaches who have guided young players in the best way possible and the fact that they gained a winning habit from an early stage almost conditioned them to success.
“Then when they made the step up to minor level they attained more honours before graduating to senior level.
“Winning breeds confidence and confidence allows players to express themselves more fully — that is part of the secret of our success.”