Crossmaglen remain an unstoppable force in club football
IN the summer of 1996, the Kernan family were returning home from an outing one Sunday evening a few weeks before Crossmaglen were due to play Mullaghbawn in the Armagh championship when the chat turned to the big game.
Joe, the then Crossmaglen manager, was explaining to his wife Patricia and their five sons how the team were going to avenge the previous year's defeat, a setback which had deeply wounded him and the squad.
Suddenly, from the back seat of the car, a young Kernan voice piped up and said: "Well don't come crying to us if you are beaten."
Joe slammed on the brakes, pulled into the side of the road and, in what his sons describe as an emotional voice said: "We won't be beaten; we're never going to be beaten again and if I hear you or anyone else from Crossmaglen talking about being beaten, then God help them. We'll show the country how good we are."
More than 15 years on, nobody doubts just how formidable Crossmaglen are. Indeed, they almost kept the Kernan promise in Armagh, losing only once -- two years ago -- in the county championship since then. They have done exceptionally well outside Armagh too, winning eight provincial and five All-Ireland titles in a quite remarkable blitz which shows no sign of losing power.
Tomorrow, they bid for a ninth Ulster crown against Burren, their closest pursuers on the honours table with five titles. The Down club had amassed all five some eight years before Crossmaglen won their first but, like all other Armagh and Ulster clubs, have been unable to match the blistering pace set by the south Armagh men.
Crossmaglen have never lost an Ulster final, yet another remarkable stat about a club that really has become the benchmark for consistent excellence. It's underlined by their 3/10 odds to win tomorrow (Burren are 10/3) as clearly the markets can't see them being overturned after beating 2010 All-Ireland champions, St Gall's (Antrim) and Ballinderry (Derry).
Burren beat Roslea (Fermanagh) and Latton (Monaghan), neither of whom would be ranked as strong as St Gall's or Ballinderry. However, there are risks lurking beneath the surface for Crossmaglen.
Despite their deserved reputation as the dominant force in club football, the Down-Armagh effect will come into play tomorrow. Whether at inter-county or club level, Down players would always feel they can match Armagh counterparts.
And while it might be slightly misplaced in this particular instance, it will still be a powerful reinforcement for Burren as they head for the Athletic Grounds.
Down star Kevin McKernan is a powerful force at the heart of Burren's security, but his organisational skills will be under real scrutiny tomorrow against an attack which put 3-9 past St Gall's and 0-17 on Ballinderry.
It all points to another Crossmaglen success, followed inevitably by another drive into All-Ireland territory.
A Crossmaglen victory would be another special occasion for the Kernans as Stephen is team captain, while brothers Aaron and Tony are also key figures in what is a truly remarkable set-up. Injury has disrupted Paul (a fourth brother), but such is the overall strength of the club, that they are well equipped to compensate.
Burren will relish the underdog role, hoping that Crossmaglen's superb record over so many years will lure them into over-confidence territory. Mind you, it's not ground with which Crossmaglen are familiar or, if they have, it has been well disguised. So well, in fact, that they have an uncanny knack of playing as if they were chasing their first win for years every time they go out. It's a formula which has stood them well.