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No final chapter for Crossmaglen as Ulster hopes lie in tatters

Gaoth Dobhair 4-11 Crossmaglen 0-16

By Declan Bogue

Two years ago, Gaoth Dobhair were beaten by 12 points in the Donegal Championship and walked out of the ground a broken team. Mervyn O'Donnell took over as manager and made one pledge - that he was going to restore honesty to the club.

Now, they will face Scotstown in their first-ever Ulster club final, after - not to be blunt about it - tearing no less then Crossmaglen Rangers asunder.

In many ways, it's been a dream for the Gaeltacht men. Their talent has never been in question but down through the years they would be the first to admit that their focus was not what it should have been.

And there is a huge dollop of romance in this too. Who would begrudge the likes of Kevin Cassidy, 37 years of age and with 2-5 now from his Ulster campaign from play, a chance of another Ulster medal to go with the one he earned with Donegal in 2011?

Eamonn McGee at 34? Neil McGee at 32? There is a sense here that despite all the building the club have been doing down through the years with an incredible crop of youngsters, there must be a big squeeze to get all these veterans over the line.

There was always the suspicion that Gaoth Dobhair's running game would trouble Cross, but few could have predicted the ease in which they got in behind the lines and plundered the Armagh champions.

Dáire ÓBaoill struck for three goals in the first 25 minutes. The first came from a ball floated over a defensive line that he raced through to pot a shot beyond Rangers goalkeeper Jamie McEvoy.

The second came out of nothing really, as he tore off from the sideline farthest from the stand and just kept running for 50 metres before again just caressing the ball to the net.

As much as what is made about Crossmaglen's style and the traditional shape they favour, it simply wasn't fit for purpose here and Gaoth Dobhair's runners ran riot.

A penalty arrived after 25 minutes after when it looked like they had overcooked a move, Cian Mulligan was upended by Garvan Carragher in the penalty area. ÓBaoill's finish underlined his experience playing soccer.

Say what you want about rule changes, but games like this refute the need for any tinkering.

That's with Gaoth Dobhair using both McGee brothers at times as sweepers. They knew however from their county final win over Naomh Conaill and the Ulster club triumph over Cargin, that they couldn't afford to invite other teams on.

Despite all that, Cross came roaring back and in the last three minutes of the first half forced their opponents to over-carry three times, getting their free kicks off quickly and narrowing the gap to five, the O'Neill brothers Rian and Oisín leading the charge.

"To be honest, we were delighted to see the half-time whistle to get back to the dressing room," said Gaoth Dobhair manager Mervyn O'Donnell.

"We felt we were under a bit of pressure and they had a bit of a purple patch. Going in at half-time we felt the tide had turned."

Cross had a half chance at goal when substitute David McKenna planted a shot but ÓBaoill stretched full length to block it down.

Three minutes into the half and their task became impossible. Johnny Hanratty had already been booked just prior to half-time for a reckless challenge and another high one on Christopher McFadden had referee Joe McQuillan awarding his second yellow, followed by a red.

With Odhran MacNiallais and ÓBaoill exceptional in midfield and Kevin Cassidy roaring into matters with two points early in the half, Gaoth Dobhair knew they couldn't afford to sit back on their cushion.

They grabbed a slice of fortune when an attempt for a point by MacNiallais dropped off the post. Underneath it was Cassidy, who slammed his shot home to the biggest roar of the day.

MacNiallais hit the post again but after it was recycled out by Niall Friel, he made no mistake the second time.

Cross kept playing to the end but by that stage, there was too much work to do and too many Gaoth Dobhair bodies to get around. David McKenna had another sight of goal in injury time, but goalkeeper Christopher Sweeney was equal to it.

Perhaps they are not the team of old. Hitting 0-16 and losing a game in November demonstrates where the faults lie and what they wouldn't give for a John Donaldson-Francie Bellew double-act to shore up the spine of the defence now.

Either way it seemed odd watching joint managers Kieran Donnelly and Donal Murtagh taking off county man Paul Hughes and one of their most experienced attackers in Tony Kernan.

Their evening was rounded off with another red card, this time for Rian O'Neill in the fourth minute of injury time when he went in late and high on James Boyle.

Discipline has become an issue in recent times, this the second game they have finished with 13 men on the field at the final whistle, which Gaoth Dobhair players greeted with a measure of calm.

They mean business. Watch out for them.

Belfast Telegraph

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