High kings committed to restoring their crown
Some of their old stalwarts are close to retirement, but Crossmaglen are as hungry as ever, writes Dermot Crowe
T HERE was a time when a headline proclaiming Crossmaglen's demise sold for good money. But it happened, as it had to, eventually.
On a Saturday evening at the Athletics Grounds in early September 2009, the elastic on a 14-year unbeaten run and 13 successive county titles, was snapped by Pearse óg. The Armagh city club won 0-7 to 0-4 and the final whistle signalled the surreal departure of a team that simply could not be banished, it seemed.
During the Cross reign, Pearse óg had suffered as much as any other Armagh native, losing four county finals, but that night they weren't for turning. Led by Ronan Clarke, they stubbornly held on to the finish, at which point both sides showed exemplary grace to mark a momentous occasion. "You always said in Cross, it is going to happen, but it is not going to happen today," says Joe Kernan, a spectator that day. "There was natural disappointment, even a wee bit of disbelief but also a bit of pride. The way they carried themselves off the field made me feel very proud, they shook every óg player's hand and wished them the best."
Pearse óg went on to win the Armagh championship but Cross have since regained it and added an eighth Ulster title to their stack of achievements. When Kernan took them over in 1993, it took three years to win a senior title and launch that remarkable run of success only equalled by Ballina Stephenites in the earlier part of the last century. Kernan managed until after the 2000 All-Ireland win and four of his sons have made the team since. Only four of the original cast are still involved, goalkeeper Paul Hearty and Oisín McConville (pictured), and the substitutes Francie Bellew and John McEntee.
The team has been shedding veterans in recent years and if they lose today a few more may retire. "I think there are something like 17 new players on the panel since (Kilmacud) Crokes beat them two years ago," says Kernan, indicating an impressive youth revolution. "We are lucky the new boys are coming through and losing the 14-in-a-row gave them a kick in the backside; I'm not saying there was complacency but people were not doing the things they were doing before. That was a big hurt at the time.
"But the good thing was that it did hurt. It reminds me of the time in 1997 when we won the All-Ireland and lost after in the Ulster semi-final to Errigal and the tears were everywhere. And I said if you are still hurting on March 17 we will be back next year. After winning the one All-Ireland, we could have been happy with that.
"We actually should have lost Armagh championships because we were put to the pin of our collars at times. We were five points down with four minutes to go against Pearse óg one year and we ended up winning it and that was the character of those boys. But this year, to be honest, we would have been happy winning a county title."
If they lose today's All-Ireland semi-final to Kilmacud Crokes, their superiors in the 2009 All-Ireland final, then the focus will be on the veterans and their intentions. "I wouldn't be retiring any of them but Oisín is married now, since just after Christmas and planning his own path for the rest of his life," says Kernan. "Francie? I'd say that could be it. John McEntee would find it hard to stay on. If those boys do go that does not mean the show is over. Jamie Clarke and David McKenna and Paul McKeown; these are the new leaders now. The day we won the (2010) county final you would think we were after winning our first. Some people thought it could be over."
Oisín McConville isn't certain he will retire when this latest adventure ceases. He plans to coach the minor footballers this year and when the new season comes around again, he'll take stock and see how mind and body fancy another assault. When they lost to Pearse óg in 2009 it gave him a break from football he hadn't experienced in a long time. "It was a really strange feeling because I basically couldn't remember the last time I'd lost, it was a shock to the system, and then you were sorry you didn't win one more.
"After that you think, well, we're glad of the break. A lot of us were going 14 years and you literally had no break; now you had some time to call your own. I thought I will go on a holiday and do what normal people do. I suppose that lasts a couple of weeks and then you are thinking what the fuck will I do with myself in the evenings? Where is the championship buzz you always feel? We're used to playing football in the winter, especially coming up to the Christmas."
They went back training towards the end of the year under a new management team of Tony McEntee and Gareth O'Neill. He describes moments of a 16-week physical training programme as "horrific" with little sight of a football. "I think the biggest thing about losing in Armagh (to Pearse óg) was that we had started taking things for granted," says McConville, now 35. "That was true of players, management, officials and people in the club, (who
felt) that we would always be involved, not realising the work going on in other clubs. The work wasn't done. To be honest the last couple of championships we won a lot of them by limping over the line. We were lucky not to have been caught before we were caught. The fact we were beaten meant something was going to have to change."
John McEntee had retired and become involved in club management with Castleblaney when he decided to go back playing after the Armagh championship. He has been coming off the bench and making a difference. Bellew has had similar cameos and remains an enduringly popular figure. Hearty looks set to outlast them all.
Kernan is far from tired of watching Cross chase titles. "The joy of winning (the Armagh championship) this year was unbelievable. If we play to our strengths and to the best of our ability we are in with a great chance. What happened two years ago (against Crokes) has nothing to do with it. With ten minutes to go it was there for the taking and we were not good enough on the day. In fairness to Kilmacud, they deserved their win, but it hurt and it still hurts."
Final words to McConville: "We are there to win it and I think we will win it, that remains to be seen. But we will die trying."
Kilmacud Crokes v Crossmaglen
Rangers, TG4 4.15
Sunday Indo Sport