True grit gets Cross' over line
All-Ireland club sfc semi-final
Long after the final whistle was blown, the Crossmaglen Rangers faithful were still standing together on the pitch in Navan trying to consume what had just happened.
Players stood with family members and supporters in little knots trying to make sense of it all.
In their rich tapestry of recent history there have been a few days possibly as good but none better and so they stood with broad smiles on their faces on the Pairc Tailteann pitch as the sun began to set after a quite incredible game.
In a strange way that is possibly the biggest tribute that could be bestowed on Kilmacud. When there's no cup to present, Cross' don't make a habit of standing around for too long! But this really engaged them, a first victory in four attempts against Leinster champions.
Kilmacud Crokes had dealt their pride as a club a significant blow when they inflicted defeat on them in the All-Ireland club final two years ago. Now they had wiped that slate clean, their delight evident at the achievement and how it had come about.
In the build-up, experienced men like Oisin McConville and Paul Hearty had made much about a new breed of Cross' player and a new style.
The big-boned players of the past had been replaced by more whippet-like athletes in black and amber. Cross' didn't grind down teams any more, they claimed. Well, grind is what they did in Navan yesterday evening. Not in the physical sense, because Kilmacud don't yield any ground in that regard.
It was persistence that carried them through. They hung in there, as Crokes twice went six points clear. They had luck on their side too, a fact acknowledged by John McEntee afterwards.
"Kilmacud are a mighty team. They were missing four or five key players and they ran us to the pin of our collar. We've been very lucky. A few refereeing decisions could have went either way," McEntee said.
Indiscipline placed a costly toll on Crokes. They lost two players to red cards and could scarcely complain about either. Manager Paddy Carr didn't offer the dismissals as an excuse but felt there is a "fussiness" in refereeing generally which borders on the "ridiculous".
"People are saying to me since the end of the game that a lot of decisions didn't go our way. I'm not so sure about that, but it's just very hard when you've had to go through a campaign like that, the fussiness of refereeing is quite ridiculous really. But I suppose it's early on in the year and that's when these things seem to happen."
And the red cards? "It was a really honest, hard, tough game of football. It was just the best of Gaelic football. If you take honest physicality out of it I'm not sure that's right, but I wouldn't in any way use that as an excuse for it."
Full-back Kevin Nolan was first to go after 21 minutes for a second yellow card. He had been fortunate to survive five minutes earlier when he hacked down Stephen Kernan, who had built up goal-bound momentum. The second yellow was not as obvious, but referee Maurice Condon had seen enough.
Crokes absorbed the loss of their Dublin player and re-established the six-point lead they had raced into after only 11 minutes, with Pat Burke, Liam Og O hEineachain, the impressively athletic Craig Dias and Brian Kavanagh all to the fore.
A magnificent goal from midfielder Dias -- who could yet emerge as one of the players to watch with Dublin over the summer -- on 26 minutes, after Paul Hearty had blocked his initial effort, helped the Dublin and Leinster champions to a 1-8 to 0-5 interval lead.
But their world began to crumble in the third quarter when they conceded two goals and lost a second player, centre-back Nicky McGrath, for tripping Aaron Kernan off the ball on 42 minutes.
Francie Hanratty had pounced for the first goal after Jamie Clarke's initial effort was saved by Crokes goalkeeper David Nestor following a pinpoint Stephen Kernan pass on 36 minutes.
Minutes later, Nestor spilled an Oisin McConville free and, with Clarke lurking, Crokes were made to pay a heavy price.
Crokes did manage to get two points ahead again through Mark Vaughan and Kavanagh from a free. But Cross' sensed blood and even the loss of their centre-back Danny O'Callaghan to a straight red card for a wild challenge on Rory O'Carroll didn't upset them greatly.
By now, Aaron Kernan, chiefly their free man since Nolan's dismissal, had assumed control behind a midfield that had struggled early on against Dias and Paddy Duggan, who went off injured after 20 minutes.
Paul Kernan was also influential in getting to grips with Kavanagh as much as he could, while the introduction of McEntee and later Kevin Carragher and Martin Aherne reaped dividends.
Aherne (two) and Carragher got Crossmaglen's last three points after a McConville point from a free had restored parity on 53 minutes.
Crokes have every right to feel it is a chance lost. Early on they played such an explosive brand of football that Cross' simply couldn't live with it. But Cross' are streetwise and smart and their joint manager Tony McEntee felt he knew where it turned.
"I think the main turning point was that Kilmacud abandoned their system of play, they started to move the ball across the pitch, started soloing up the field and running into the tackles. That suited us."
Scorers -- Crossmaglen Rangers: J Clarke 1-1, F Hanratty 1-0, A Kernan 0-3 (3f), O McConville (2f), M Aherne 0-2 each, K Carragher, T Kernan, J Hanratty 0-1 each. Kilmacud Crokes: B Kavanagh 0-7 (5f), C Dias 1-2, L Og O hEineachain, D Kelleher, M Vaughan all 0-1 each.
Crossmaglen Rangers -- P Hearty; P McKeown, P Kernan, J Morgan; A Kernan, D O'Callaghan, S Finnegan; J Hanratty, D McKenna; J Clarke, S Kernan, F Hanratty; T Kernan, A Cunningham, O McConville. Subs: J McEntee for McKenna (18), D McKenna for Cunningham (h-t), K Carragher for F Hanratty (43), M Aherne for Finnegan (55), F Bellew for Clarke (61)
Kilmacud Crokes -- D Nestor; R O'Carroll, K Nolan, C Lamb; C O'Sullivan, B McGrath, R Ryan; P Duggan, C Dias; L Og O hEineachain, D Kelleher, A Morrissey; P Burke, B Kavanagh, M Coughlan. Subs: B Hanamy for Duggan (20), M Vaughan for Coughlan (37), R O'Carroll for Kelleher (43), B O'Rorke for O hEineachain (55), E Culligan for O'Sullivan (58).
Ref -- M Condon (Waterford).