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Squad solidarity is Crossmaglen Rangers' secret

By Declan Bogue

In the last week, a poster to a popular GAA website chatroom put up a list of all the Championship defeats Crossmaglen Rangers have suffered ever since they began this incredible journey.

It proves that Cross set the Championship intensity, because Championship is woven into their DNA. Before they take the field against Kilcoo tomorrow, they have played 142 Championship games since 1996.

They have won 118 times and drawn 13 times. They have lost 11 times in 17 years. Simple maths will tell you that equated to the six All-Irelands they have won, but the losses say something as well.

It took Errigal Ciaran with Peter Canavan in his prime to beat them in '97, and it took two replays before they could kill off Cross in '02 with the spine of the team already exhausted from their exertions in winning Armagh's only Sam Maguire.

Castleblayney took them down in a local derby in 2000. Enniskillen Gaels got the better of them at the third attempt a year later. The Loup beat them on their way to Ulster in 2003, Bellaghy managed it in 2005.

And since that? Unbeaten in the Ulster club. Phenomenal.

In the All-Ireland series, it has taken stellar names to topple them. Portlaoise in 2004. Dublin superclubs St Vincents and Kilmacud Crokes beat them on their way to successive titles in 2008 and 2009, and last year it was the turn of St Brigid's, who of course sealed the deal on St Patrick's Day.

Ask those in Cross what game they talk most about and it's the one domestic loss in 18 seasons; Pearse Óg in the 2009 semi-final.

In the wake of the latest Championship final win over St Patrick's Cullyhanna, Oisín McConville and Paul Hearty got into a fascinating radio discussion of the motivations of Crossmaglen Rangers. McConville said the 2009 defeat begat their subsequent two All-Ireland titles in 2011 and 2012.

The key to that, he maintains, was Tony McEntee and Gareth O'Neill coming in as managers, succeeding Donal Murtagh. McEntee once said his reason for taking over was because: "We were conscious of what had happened to Enniskillen Gaels."

The one-time Fermanagh kingpins used to collect county titles for fun, but in recent times a rot has set in. Now, they are marooned in the second tier of their county for the fourth season in five years.

"It would have been very easy to walk away after that stage," McConville says of the Pearse Og loss.

"I think that if we had have sat back long enough and thought about it, probably I could have very easily gone at that stage. But Tony and Gareth came in at that stage and they turned it around and they were responsible for a lot of what has gone on since."

McEntee and O'Neill had a magical partnership, losing only one Championship game in their three seasons in charge. And once their energy reserves were depleted, they handed the senior team back to none other than Joe Kernan.

Back for his second spell in charge, Kernan's Cross are like another bunch of serial winners in black and amber stripes; the regeneration is ongoing, talk of transition is superfluous when their evolvement is a naturally-occurring cycle.

"People said that when we lost my brother Jim we would be lost, that when we lost Francie Bellew, the McEntees, myself whatever. That doesn't happen because the thing keeps going. It's the ethos and the belief," continued McConville.

"We always seem to bring two or three minors on. We are not unbelievably successful at minor level. Yes we have success all right, but we are able to get three or four players on every year, added to the squad that is already there, and that is the key to success."

Against Cullyhanna, they were without Jamie Clarke (travelling) and McConville (retired). Further back, last year's captain David McKenna started the game on the bench and injuries to James Morgan and Ronan Finnegan kept them out.

"But that doesn't matter," says McConville. "There are fifteen bodies going out on the field and in fairness to them, one of the things that amazes me is the hunger these boys have."

They never seem to tire of playing football and winning, admits Paul Hearty.

"We could be out doing a hard slog some night, lashed out of it on the training pitch. You get into the shower then and there could be a sing-song among the boys and a bit of shouting and yahoo-ing. The atmosphere has been brilliant this last couple of years and it is a joy to go up and train."

This is coming from a man who has won 17 senior county medals in football, a record that is likely to stand forever.

"No matter how hard the session was," he continues, "you could go in and the changing room would be mighty.

"In dressing rooms gone by, there maybe were a few boys with a few airs and graces about them, but when you take these boys in the changing room, they are all on an even keel.

"You leave your feelings at the door of the changing rooms. The slagging and the craic that goes on takes the boys back down to earth."

Finally, there is a continuity of management. The run began with Joe Kernan, has gone through Oliver Short and Joey Cunningham, Michael 'Packie' McConville, Donal Murtagh, Tony McEntee and Gareth O'Neill and now back to Kernan.

"I always find it funny when I hear about managers going into clubs and you hear about the sums of money involved and whatever," is McConville's view.

"Clubs should concentrate more on what is going on in underage, on improving and coaching the coaches they already have. For me, that's another thing that has really worked for us in Cross."

A lot of things work for Cross, but they have always worked at them. That's why they are the best, that's why they are Cross.

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