Cross find their composure to settle old score
Crossmaglen 0-12 Kilcoo0-8 Ulster Club SFC semi-final
It was an afternoon when the club football championship overall took a decisive turn and Crossmaglen Rangers made quite a statement.
They might have six All-Ireland and 10 Ulster titles to add to their 19 from 20 titles in Armagh over the last two decades but, by their own exalted standards, they've been selling themselves short in recent years.
No Ulster title since 2012, defeats to Kilcoo and Omagh since. Time for the most celebrated club of all to take stock. In a dark and murky Pairc Esler in Newry, they did just that.
Trailing by 0-3 to 0-1 in the 19th minute they raised the temperature for the remainder of the first half and, by the 42nd minute, when Aaron Kernan converted a free after his full-forward Rico Kelly was fouled, they had hit seven in a row to lead by 0-8 to 0-3. You never sensed Kilcoo could summon the resolve to retrieve enough momentum after that.
In truth, Cross should have had further daylight to fall back on, Kelly's thundering shot on 38 minutes from close range, after Stephen Kernan's delightful ball, striking a post and earning a mild rebuke afterwards from joint-manager John McEntee who felt that, on another day, failure to convert such a gilt-edged chance might have been the difference.
That third quarter is, arguably, as good as Crossmaglen have been on this stage since they came off the plateau of a trio of Ulster titles that also yielded back-to-back All-Ireland crowns in 2010 and 2011.
Kilcoo can point to an injury sustained by Paul Devlin as a turning point in the 21st minute and the chronology of events would certainly back that up. They had that two-point lead at that stage and had rattled quite a few Cross cages.
But there were enough signs that the Armagh champions were beginning to find whatever rhythm a team could find in such difficult conditions, made worse by an intermediate semi-final that had taken place beforehand.
This was a grind and in those circumstances Crossmaglen had the characters to weather any storm and pull through.
John Hanratty was a key influencer in that regard despite being off the mark with a couple of shots in that first half. But he's not in the team for his accuracy. Hanratty brings a robust presence that helped to ground his team here. Nothing spectacular, just an ability to win balls that maybe should have been clinging to black shirts instead.
When the Cross' ship was swaying from side to side midway through the first half Hanratty helped to steady it. James Morgan and Aaron Kernan too saw to it that they reached port.
In the second half Kernan drove on with greater support, most notably from brother Tony whose passing and vision in the conditions were a cut above. His threaded pass to Kyle Carragher for his second point, his team's seventh for a 0-7 to 0-3 lead, stood out.
Aaron Kernan felt afterwards that both teams were perhaps "too hyped" and that's why the first half was tentative and error-ridden.
No official attendance was announced but it must have been in excess of 8,000 to see two rivals that have had a spiteful recent rivalry that was again reflected in the card count, nine yellows, a red for Kilcoo's Dominic McEvoy and a black for Cross' full-back Aidan Rushe late on.
Ryan Johnston, posted at centre-back for Kilcoo, caused trouble breaking at pace and got forward to pinch one of their opening three scores.
But with Morgan getting a handle on Jerome Johnston and Kilcoo unable to get Conor Laverty into the game enough, the Down champions for the last four years, with high hopes of a provincial breakthrough, quickly ran out of road.
Cross' kicked nine first-half wides, they didn't register one in the second half until substitute John Murtagh missed in injury-time.
The difference in execution and economy between the first and second half was summed up in that one statistic but it manifested everywhere from the moment Oisin O'Neill, a real prospect eligible for minor this year, sliced over the first point after the break from an angle that shouldn't have suited a right-footed kicker.
As a measure of their strength in depth they also introduced Jamie Clarke, back from his latest travels in the last couple of weeks.
McEntee figured composure was their main asset.
"We knew they were going to bring serious intensity and we sort of figured that you can only keep that up for so long because our boys move well and work hard. At some stage, (it was a case of) who is going to burn out quickest here?
"A lot of balls spilled over the sideline and the inside line was too cluttered in that first half," he added.
"There were too many men back there so we weren't getting opportunities. It was a simple correction," he said of the repair work they undertook. " At half-time we vowed to keep up that intensity and theirs faded a bit. That first score (of the half) was a cracking score by Oisin O'Neill. Had that not gone over, who knows?"
Once McEvoy picked up a second yellow card on 53 minutes McEntee sensed the game was safe.
"We were fortunate enough that they had a man sent off at that crucial time because they are a serious team for scoring goals," he noted. "They have relied very highly on goals all year. And when he went off it kind of finished the game off. They weren't going to get in for a goal chance from that time on."
So Cross power on, emboldened by avenging that 2013 defeat after a replay and extra-time. Their real bite is back.
scorers - Crossmaglen Rangers: A Kernan (2fs), T Kernan (3fs) Carragher 0-3 each, O O'Neill, R Kelly, P Hughes 0-1 each.
Kilcoo: D O'Hanlon 0-5 (4fs), M Devlin, J Johnston, R Johnston all 0-1 each.
Crossmaglen Rangers - P Hearty; P Hughes, A Rushe, J Morgan; A Kernan, M Aherne, P McKeown; J Hanratty, A Cunningham; S Kernan, M McNamee, T Kernan; O O'Neill, R Kelly, K Carragher. Subs: K Brennan for O'Neill (47), J Murtagh for Cunningham (49), J Clarke for McNamee (56), S Finnegan for Rushe BC (58), C Cumiskey for Carragher (60), D McConville for S Kernan (61).
Kilcoo - S Kane; N Branagan, Aidan Branagan, D Branagan; Aaron Branagan, R Johnston, D O'Hanlon; J McClean, F McGreevy; D Ward, P Devlin, A Morgan; C Laverty, P Greenan, J Johnston. Subs: M Devlin for Devlin (24), D McEvoy for McGreevy (45), S O'Hanlon for McClean (45), G McEvoy for Ward (56).
ref - Noel Mooney (Cavan).