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Family life is helping Crossmaglen Rangers veteran keep powering on

By Declan Bogue

Just to amuse himself, Crossmaglen Rangers captain and goalkeeper Paul Hearty sometimes scans the dressing room and counts how many fathers of the current panel he played alongside when he first came onto the team.

"When you think about it, it is a bit unerring, but it's something you get on with. We have a laugh about it in the changing rooms," he said.

With 19 Armagh Championships, 11 Ulster titles and five All-Irelands tucked away with his club, of course the 37-year-old's longevity should bridge the generations.

And he isn't finished yet. He is in pursuit of further glory and his side take on Castlebar Mitchells in the All-Ireland semi-final (throw-in 6.15pm) at Kingspan Breffni Park this evening.

What makes it all the more remarkable is that he does it with a big crew of his own. "Just the four!" he said of his children Breanne (8), Erin Mae (6), Oran (4) and Aoibhe (2).

He and Olivia are celebrating 10 years of marriage this year and he acknowledges her role in all of this.

"It can be hard, she has a lot to do. She knows it probably won't be for too much longer," he said.

His day begins when the alarm gets him out of bed at 5am. He drives to Dublin delivering milk and gets back around 4pm.

The schedule thereafter is "home, children, dinner, homework, get them ready for bed around seven, grab the stuff and then training or gym."

Success has been a consuming addiction. When he came onto the senior team in 1995, Cross hadn't won a Championship since 1986. They were beaten by neighbours Mullaghbawn in the Armagh Championship, who went on to win an Ulster club title.

"That opened our eyes to what could be done. We were all coming into the team at 17, 18 years of age and we were a young team with great footballers, big and strong and all of that," he recalled.

"That did drive us on to what could be achieved with our own team. The next year, we went on and did what we did."

For several reasons - let's include organisation, maintaining standards and a creation of a winning culture among them - they have won 19 of the last 20 Armagh titles. Many clubs around the country try to identify what they have done and how they have done it, especially in an era in which the culture of Gaelic football has altered so much.

Now, it is a different game than when some players used to pause before entering the dressing room to stub their cigarette out.

For example, Hearty would not miss his twice-weekly gym sessions with his team-mates.

"That's why I am still playing," he acknowledged.

"The gym is in the club and you go in and bust yourself for 50 minutes or an hour. I have really got into it the last few years and you can see the benefit from injury-prevention and a bit of core stability. It keeps me injury-free."

And now they have access to more footage of the opposition than ever before, which means more video analysis sessions.

"At the moment you have John Mac (McEntee) and Oisín (McConville, joint-managers), who are very thorough in what they do. The video analysis is on every team at this stage of the competition. We will go in after training sessions for maybe 15, 20 minutes to go through stuff," he revealed.

Still, certain principles they hold dear. Being awarded the captaincy for the first time last year has changed little for him.

"I would have always been vocal, especially as you got older and more experienced, you would have understood that younger boys looked up to you, having played for the county and been in the squad for so long," he added.

"They have always been able to get the right people in the right roles. It's pretty much a county set-up in Cross, and always has been.

"When you think about the managers we have had over the years, they have all went on to other things."

The foundations are always sound, and when you have the strategy, the coaching and the conditioning done, only then can you go out and play the exciting football that Cross are renowned for.

In recent years there has undoubtedly been the rise of the 'Cross Groupie' - men from outside the Armagh area who follow the team around the province and Ireland to admire their old-school style and footpassing.

You mention one man from Virginia, Co Cavan who is devoted to Cross and Hearty tops it.

"I would have heard stories of boys coming further than that, there are boys coming from Kerry whenever we are playing," he said.

"That's just the way we have always played our football. We feel it's the most effective way to beat others. Some teams do gravitate towards a mass defence, so you try and move the ball quickly to beat it.

"When an opposition team lose the ball in the middle of the field, the middle eight all seem to make a sprint back to the 'D' and that's it.

"I think the best thing is the ball travels faster than any man, so make the ball do the work."

They will have a chance to do that this evening against Castlebar Mitchells.

Despite all the miles on the clock, Hearty has not lost the boyish enthusiasm for a big game and loves the televised glamour around the club scene of the last decade.

"The club are getting a lot more publicity because it's probably a lot more exciting than county football at the minute," he added.

"I think the media are starting to recognise that. The club competitions have gone up in value.

"I can't wait. The butterflies are starting already and I can't wait for it, to get out onto the field and put in a performance."

Another one. Twenty years on.

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