McHale backs Brigid's boys to quench the Cross fire
A Mayo-Roscommon coalition lines up at Mullingar today with the aim of dethroning Crossmaglen Rangers, the kings of club football, in the AIB All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final.
Former Mayo All Stars Kevin McStay and Liam McHale, aided by highly respected football mentor Benny O'Brien from Roscommon, are in the cockpit guiding St Brigid's through this 2012-13 campaign.
This is the management trio's first venture with St Brigid's as the Kiltoom club seek to bounce back from semi-final defeat last year by neighbouring Garrycastle.
A noble cause, indeed, and a major challenge. Many clubs, including St Brigid's on two previous occasions, have fallen by the wayside as the men in the famed black and amber jerseys from the North stomped on their dreams and aspirations.
Dubbed by many as the greatest club in the country, Cross teams have floated like butterflies and stung like killer bees against the best of the rest since they emerged as a potent force in 1996.
Challengers have given Cross their best shot, but six times in All-Ireland finals, they have come a cropper against the irresistible will that is the essence of the Armagh club's spirit and tradition.
Today, the gauntlet is thrown down by the pride of Roscommon, St Brigid's, whose credentials are impressive, with a third successive Connacht championship in the bag.
Nobody at Brigid's is complacent about their achievements at county or provincial level, but a national title would be the supreme accolade they cherish above all others.
Their previous collisions with Crossmaglen resulted in narrow defeats – 1-11 to 0-11 in the 2007 semi-final and 2-11 to 1-11 in the 2011 All-Ireland final.
Brigid's fancied another joust with the Ulster powerhouses last year, but were undone by Garrycastle, an experience which stalwart forward Ian Kilbride described as "heart-breaking" earlier in the week.
Kilbride and his team-mates felt they did not do themselves justice in that Athlone derby last year, and Garrycastle took Cross to a drawn final before losing narrowly in the replay.
Out of the ashes of defeat and pain grew a spark of motivation, which has now fanned into a fiery passion for atonement.
Army officer and 'Sunday Game' pundit McStay took over as manager and conducted a survey of the team's assets and liabilities in conjunction with his sidekicks, McHale and O'Brien.
Lessons have been learned and this year St Brigid's have gone to the well of inspiration seeking to add the little element or two that can bring them to the Holy Grail. So far, so good. The Mayo-Roscommon axis has accomplished its mission and it's all to play for at Cusack Park.
McHale is relishing the prospect and feels that St Brigid's can give a good account of themselves.
"They're very talented. There's no question about that. I would like to think we've improved them," he said.
"The stats would show they're much better defensively than they were in the last two years.
"When they won two Connacht titles in a row, a lot of those games were very tight affairs.
"This year we've averaged 15/16 points and been conceding about seven points.
"We identified that (conceding scores) as a weakness, because nearer the goal we have serious firepower. We have a lot of guys that can score, Senan (Kilbride) and Frankie (Dolan) being the main two.
"But we definitely have improved defensively. Up to now we've been hard to break down, but this game is a different kettle of fish altogether, so we'll just see how it goes."
McHale pointed out that tightening up in defence does not mean a slavish devotion to 'parking the bus' in the midfield-half-back area for the sake of being negative.
The Brigid's mentors have sought to make players aware of working back in numbers to win the ball and not to stand around marking players who are not involved in the play.
"We try to play a zonal type of system. We worked hard on that all year. I think they are comfortable with it. They haven't been conceding much and that gives them great confidence," said McHale.
You don't win matches without scoring, and in that respect, the Brigid's management has put an emphasis on goals, highlighting the psychological value of a green flag and encouraging players to go for goal when they can.
McHale noted that their team has averaged two goals a game and said: "That's another statistic that has to give you confidence. In an All-Ireland semi-final if you score two goals, you'll be hard to beat. It's as simple as that.
"They're three-pointers, but there's a psychological aspect to it as well. We would encourage fellas to be brave in front of goal, to have some composure in front of goal, to understand that when you are two-on-one, your opponents are under pressure and to go for the goal," he said.
Brigid's are not only playing Crossmaglen, but have to cope mentally with the aura and reputation forged by the Ulster champions' repeated success on the pitch. How do they cope with that aspect?
"Crossmaglen are the best club side of all time. I guess they've taken over from Nemo Rangers now, haven't they, with the amount of wins they have. It's remarkable what Oisin McConville has achieved with all his medals," said McHale.
"It's probably the hardest competition to win in relation to the amount of time you have to spend – it's a season that goes on for possibly 13 or 14 months, depending on when you begin.
"You start in January or February with the ambition of winning a county title, then you're going through the whole year.
"You're training a lot of time in very wintry, damp cold weather which is not conducive to good training and to fellas feeling good about it.
"You're playing the biggest games of the year in tough conditions as well, so what Crossmaglen have achieved is remarkable, but we're in good shape to play these guys, good and all as they are."