Rangers find 'extra' edge in epic battle
Scotstown lose both Hughes brothers to red cards in extra-time as quality bench makes difference for ruthless 11-time Ulster champions
To listen to the revelry and celebration emanating from the Crossmaglen Rangers dressing room in Armagh's Athletic Grounds in the aftermath of this epic Ulster club final, you could easily have mistaken them for first-timers in the provincial winners' enclosure.
Every time one of the heroes of battle pushed open the door, the decibel level grew louder.
Outside, friends, relatives and supporters of the team who have witnessed such unprecedented success for their club over the last two decades, shared that sense of elation that is more readily identified with a maiden voyage or a happy conclusion to a period of struggle.
In that context, it's worth repeating Crossmaglen's cumulative record in finals since their breakthrough in 1996 - 36 wins (19 Armagh, 11 Ulster, six All-Ireland) from 37 appearances. Their 2009 All-Ireland club final against Kilmacud Crokes still stands alone as their only reversal.
It's a remarkable record. But then they are a remarkable club. And that's why an 11th title at this level means as much as the first or any of the others.
This one will feel that extra bit special though because of the manner in which they played their way out of trouble. It said everything about the image they have cultivated, the way they have presented themselves as the baton has been handed down through the years.
On a raw and stormy afternoon they weren't at their best, but their well of resolve runs deeper than just about anyone else's at this level.
Scotstown had them on the rack for the last 10 minutes of normal time. They should have killed them off. Darren Hughes, at full-forward for about three-quarters of the match where he had a great battle with James Morgan, came out field and caused havoc.
The unlikely sight of some of the more polished Cross players having to resort to fouling Hughes when he was in full flow was a measure of how hard it was for them to handle him. Scotstown were awarded 38 frees over the 80 minutes played, fouls on Hughes alone may well have registered in double figures.
Morgan picked up three yellow cards, two in extra-time that converted to red at the end, as he benefited from a rule change at the most recent Congress that no longer sees a 'yellow' carry over into extra-time.
Rory Beggan had a 50-metre free to win it. On summer Sundays in Clones it's well within his range but in these conditions it was, at best, a half-chance.
Crossmaglen had substitute Danny O'Callaghan dismissed on a straight red card in the 54th minute for an incident with Scotstown midfielder James Turley. But when Scotstown didn't make their superiority count in those closing stages, as Shane Carey and captain Donal Morgan really stepped up to support Hughes, their fate was effectively sealed.
Extra-time is no place to be trading blows with a squad of such vast resources as Crossmaglen's, especially players that know they've fallen short of their own high standards and have such a quick opportunity to remedy.
Scotstown may have been a little unfortunate that referee Barry Cassidy chose to show Kieran Hughes red instead of black after he felled Crossmaglen forward John Murtagh five minutes into extra-time.
Either way, Hughes was going but Scotstown needed legs and the loss was enormous at that stage of the game. Their bench was nowhere near as strong as Crossmaglen's, who used 25 players over the 80 minutes, five more than Scotstown drew from their pool. It had a gradual effect.
Cross got to half-time in extra-time 1-13 to 1-11 ahead having played into the wind and regained a composure and savvy that had deserted them going down the final stretch.
Conor McCarthy pointed a free to reduce the gap to a point but in a two-minute spell they were hit for 1-2 to push the gap out to six with points for substitute David McKenna and substitute Padraig Stuttard either side of Kyle Carragher's goal, courtesy of Jamie Clarke's vision after a botched quick kick-out from Rory Beggan.
Scotstown substitute Brian McGinnity grabbed a late goal that was of mere cosmetic value, while Darren Hughes was red-carded after an incident with Morgan, who also walked to bring the red card count to four.
Scotstown had played into the wind in the first half but a Darren Hughes goal on nine minutes, after Morgan's delivery had deceived the Cross full-back line, gave them some momentum and a 1-1 to 0-2 lead.
Cross were dominating midfield though and with Aaron Kernan and Martin Aherne sweeping across the half-back line effectively, they gained control. Kieran Hughes was effective at centre-back for Scotstown but too often poor in possession and was caught in the build up to Tony Kernan's superb goal on 28 minutes as Aherne and Michael McNamee combined for a 1-5 to 1-3 lead that extended to 1-6 to 1-3 by the break.
When Kyle Carragher pushed the lead out to four after the break, it looked like a routine afternoon for the multi-champions.
But Scotstown dug deep with Carey, Donal Morgan and Darren Hughes leading the charge and Turley coming into it at midfield.
Clarke took time to find his bearings for Cross when he came on but when he did he was a real focal point while Tony Kernan's range of passing was immense and he was deservedly their man of the match.
Aaron Kernan required treatment for a knock to the head in the first half but finished the game before going to hospital straight after the match as a precaution.
Crossmaglen joint-manager Oisin McConville agreed that they had diced with death in the second half.
"We were very poor in the second half, we kicked the first point and after that, we went completely out of it. We almost paid the ultimate price," he admitted.
"When Rory Beggan had the free, he is liable to kick that over the bar, and if he kicks it over the bar, you are gone.
"In extra-time we were very, very good. We were tuned in and we realised what we were after doing in that second half. We got a grip at the end.
"I never had any doubt we would win it, it's easy for me to say now but there was a time when I thought we were a lot more focused. We got our match-ups a wee bit better towards the end.
"It was some battle. In some ways it was good to watch, in others, maybe it wasn't. It was frenetic stuff towards the end."
Acknowledging the quality of their bench, McConville picked out a moment involving Garvan Carragher as pivotal.
"For me he was phenomenal. There was a real sea-change moment when he went for a ball with two of their men and put both of them on their backs. That was a major turning point for us."
Scotstown manager Mattie McGleenan admitted winning one Ulster club match was their target at the outset, but acknowledged that they had left a glorious opportunity behind.
"When Cross had their opportunity to put us to the sword they did," he said. "When we had chances to put them away at the end of normal time, we didn't take it. That's what makes Cross so good."
On a day when Clonmel Commercials became the first Tipperary team to win a Munster senior club football title and Wexford's Oulart-The Ballagh laid a ghost to rest, Scotstown, searching for a first Ulster title in 26 years just fell short. Fairytales are always that bit more difficult to realise in Crossmaglen company.
Scorers - Crossmaglen Rangers: T Kernan 1-6 (0-5fs), K Carragher 1-2, J Murtagh 0-3, M McNamee, S Kernan, A Kernan (f), P Stuttard, C Cumiskey, D McKenna 0-1 each. Scotstown: S Carey 0-6 (5fs), D Hughes 1-0, B McGinnity 1-0 each, C McCarthy 0-2 (1f), D Morgan, E Caulfield, O Heaphey, R Beggan (45) 0-1 each.
Crossmaglen Rangers - P Hearty; A Rushe, J Morgan, P Hughes; M Aherne, A Kernan, P McKeown; J Hanratty, R Kelly; S Kernan, M McNamee, T Kernan; K Carragher, J Murtagh, O O'Neill. Subs: D McKenna for Hanratty (h-t), S Finnegan for Rushe (36), J Clarke for O'Neill (40), C Cumiskey for Kelly (45), D O'Callaghan for Aherne (50), A Cunningham for M McNamee (53), P Studdard for D O'Callaghan (0-01), G Carragher for Cunningham (f-t), K Brennan for Murtagh (70), D McConville for S Kernan (74), A Cunningham for Carragher (76).
Scotstown - R Beggan; M Duffy, D McArdle, P Keenan; E Caulfield, K Hughes, F McPhillips; F Caulfield, J Turley; D Morgan, S Carey, R McKenna; C McCarthy, D Hughes, O Heaphey. Subs: B Boylan for McPhillips (31), D McCague for McKenna (43), B McGinnity for Heaphey (48), B McMeel for E Caulfield (76), D McNally for McArdle (78).
Ref - B Cassidy (Derry)