Cross' early pace proves too hot to handle for brave Kilcoo
THE Ulster senior football title left the Athletic Grounds under the cover of darkness last night and once again headed for Crossmaglen, where it will generate enough energy over the coming weeks to power the town's Christmas lights.
It was Crossmaglen's 10th Ulster success, crowning yet another magnificent season, the fruits of which leaves them perfectly placed to take their challenge into the new year, when they will attempt to retain the All-Ireland title.
They mixed the sublime with the ridiculous yesterday before finally settling on the accomplished which took them safely over the line in a game they appeared to have secured with some ease when they led by 2-6 to 0-1 after 18 minutes.
Kilcoo were totally out of their depth in that opening quarter, vainly chasing the slick Crossmaglen men, who took them into difficult territory they hadn't experienced in either the Down championship or in their advance to the Ulster final.
Oisin McConville slotted a penalty to the Kilcoo net in the second minute and Aaron Kernan shot a second goal two minutes later after timing his run into the square perfectly.
Shellshocked Kilcoo finally got off the mark in the sixth minute when Paul Devlin pointed a free but as the Crossmaglen barrage continued, the Down men were made to look like juniors who had wandered into the wrong venue. They trailed by 2-6 to 0-3 at half-time, having failed to score from open play but, significantly, they had stopped the heavy bleeding.
Crossmaglen didn't score for the final 12 minutes of the half – indeed their game had deteriorated as passes went astray and wrong options were taken.
It was in marked contrast to the opening quarter when they put together some dazzling moves which illuminated a dark, wet afternoon. And when Kernan pointed a free two minutes into the second half to put Crossmaglen 10 points clear, it looked as if they would gallop to one of their easiest Ulster final wins but, to Kilcoo's credit, they dug deep into their character reserves and unleashed a furious backlash which stunned the champions.
Kilcoo scored 1-4 without reply between the 34th and 47th minutes, the goal coming from Anthony Devlin in the 41st minute. Kilcoo won most of the individual battles in that period and when Crossmaglen had sub Michael McNamee sent off on a straight red card in the 45th minute, their supporters in the crowd of 8,264 must have been wondering if they were about to witness the club's first ever Ulster final defeat.
It was at this stage that Crossmaglen's vast experience kicked in. They set about disrupting Kilcoo's momentum and succeeded in the 49th minute when wing-back Martin Aherne scored a priceless point. It was a decisive score as it not only extended Crossmaglen's lead to four points, it also broke Kilcoo's rhythm.
McConville pointed a free later on and sub Kyle Brennan kicked Crossmaglen's third goal on the hour. They had been reduced to 13 men a minute earlier when Jamie Clarke was sent off on a second yellow, ending his involvement in a game where his impact was considerably less than would have been expected.
Kilcoo scored two late points but they were no more than consolation efforts on a day that will have left them wondering why they started so slowly.
"We were very flat in the first 10 minutes and Crossmaglen took full advantage. You can't afford to start slowly against a team like Crossmaglen. We battled back well in the second half and emptied all the tanks but had left ourselves with too much to do," said Kilcoo manager Jim McCorry.
It's a sign of the high standards which Crossmaglen have set for themselves that even in their hour of glory, they were trying to assess why they made life so difficult for themselves after starting so well.
"In the first 15 minutes everything we tried came off but after that we lost our way a bit. We were forcing our passes and our movement up front wasn't as good as it had been earlier on. We knew at half-time that Kilcoo would come back at us," said Aaron Kernan.
He referenced Aherne's point as the settling agent which restored Crossmaglen's equilibrium while acknowledging that they have a lot of work ahead of them before the All-Ireland semi-final in February.
"We made life harder for ourselves today than we should. Having said that, let's give credit to Kilcoo. They battled back very well and asked us all sorts of questions. Our experience was crucial in getting us through the difficult periods," he said.
While Crossmaglen celebrate yet another wonderful chapter in what is an epic success story over the last two decades, Kilcoo will be wondering what might have happened if they had been more secure early on. Their defence was ripped apart by a slick Crossmaglen attack and with Aaron Kernan timing his forward runs with great precision, he added another dimension to an impressive unit.
There were times when most of the players were squeezed into the Kilcoo half as the Down champions, who were appearing in their first provincial final, attempted to clog the approach routes to their besieged goal.
"We played some lovely football early but there's no point doing it for 10 minutes. We'd be disappointed with the way we lost our way after making such a great start but, in the end, we have the title which is all that counts," said Kernan.
Business as usual then, for the black-and-amber men as they signed off on another remarkable year while setting up new challenges for 2013.
Scorers – Crossmaglen: O McConville 1-2 (1-0 pen), A Kernan 1-1 (1f), K Brennan 1-0, S Kernan 0-2, T Kernan, K Carragher, A Cunningham, M Aherne 0-1 each. Kilcoo: D O'Hanlon 0-4 (3f), A Devlin 1-0, P Devlin 0-3 (3f), D Kane, R Johnston 0-1 each.
Crossmaglen – P Hearty; P Hughes, P Kernan, P McKeown; A Kernan, J Morgan, M Aherne; J Hanratty, D McKenna; K Carragher, S Kernan, T Kernan; J Clarke, A Cunningham, O McConvillle. Subs: M McNamee for S Kernan (27), D O'Callaghan for P Kernan (45), C Cumiskey for Carragher (54), K Brennan for Cunningham (59), R Finnegan for Hughes (60).
Kilcoo – S Kane; N Branagan, D Branagan, S O'Hanlon; D O'Hanlon, A Branagan, Gerard McEvoy; P Greenan, A Devlin; R Johnston, P Devlin, D Kane; J Johnston, C Laverty, Gary McEvoy. Subs: F McGreevy for Johnston (54), J McClean for A Devlin (54), S Devlin for Kane (59).
Ref – J McQuillan (Cavan)