Saturday 24 March 2018

Ageless McConville dethrones St Gall's

Crossmaglen 1-12
St Gall's 0-9
Ulster SFC Rd 1

Paul Hearty, left, and Aaron Kernan of Crossmaglen Rangers. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Paul Hearty, left, and Aaron Kernan of Crossmaglen Rangers. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The guard of honour given to St Gall's by their hosts in Crossmaglen was like the wooden horse the Greeks sent the Trojans -- it lured them into a false sense of security.

It was, said one of their joint managers and former Armagh star Tony McEntee, the "proper and nice" way to treat All-Ireland champions -- not a respect that was always shown to them in the past.

But that was where the pleasantries ended. The holders were dumped out of the Ulster championship by the club that has seen this competition as a birthright over the last decade and a half.

Those that bemoaned the dearth of physicality over the course of the two International Rules Tests would have been well entertained here as the champions of Ulster for the last six years collided in what could loosely be termed a 'unification bout'.

With so much at stake, it was bound to be hard-hitting, uncompromising and raucous. Sometimes it spilled over into something more sinister. St Gall's were never going to be allowed to play their controlled possession game in the lion's den without a significant response. What other way could the reigning champions have expected it?

Referee Joe McQuillan dished out 11 yellow cards, two of which resulted in red cards for St Gall's attacker Karl Stewart and Cross corner-back James Morgan within one tension-filled minute in the first half.

It settled down after the break but by then McQuillan was probably tired of reaching for his pocket when he still had plenty of cause to. Nevertheless, Cross midfielder Johnny Hanratty got a straight red for a needlessly high challenge on Kevin Niblock with the game well into injury-time.


It would be wrong however to dwell entirely on the proliferation of cards and nature of the exchanges and say they were all overboard. In fact, Hanratty executed one thundering tackle on Gallagher in the first half that was perfectly timed, within the rules and thrilled the home crowd. Overall, Crossmaglen played some really positive and direct football.

From the driving runs of Aaron Kernan and David McKenna to the pin-point passing of Stephen and Tony Kernan to the accuracy and sublime finishing of veteran Oisin McConville, they always had the measure of the visitors.

They had their scares and twice Paul Hearty was forced to make magnificent saves, once when it really mattered from Niblock's penalty at a critical time seven minutes into the second half after Francie Bellew, a late first-half substitute, had brought down Rory Gallagher.

Had Niblock converted, there would have been just four points between them but Hearty was equal to the shot, matching the save he made for Armagh against Derry at Celtic Park in May.

"The penalty was harsh from my angle," said McEntee. "Maybe Francie pulled his jersey, I don't know. It was probably the changing moment in the match. I don't think St Gall's believed in themselves at that stage coming in eight points down. Once the penalty was saved it was nearly game over."

Essentially, Crossmaglen were driven. Nothing encapsulated that more than the exchanges between Stewart and his marker Stephen Finnegan. Early on Finnegan was constantly in Stewart's ear, talking to him, making life uncomfortable around him. A more vigilant linesman might have brought it to the referee's attention.

But Stewart, a pre-match replacement for Kevin McGourty, bought it and by the 22nd minute he'd picked up two yellows and was on his way to the dressing-room.

Morgan quickly followed him as the exchanges intensified but the reduction of numbers gave Cross even more width to spread the ball around.

By then McConville, showing hunger and class even at 34 years of age, was in his pomp, drilling over the first four Cross points, three from difficult frees. He also added a penalty after McKenna was taken out of it tracking the flight of a delivery into the St Gall's goalmouth.

There was a lovely style to the home side's attacking play, where the use of the boot was paramount. By half-time, a 1-9 to 0-4 lead was fully justified.

"We have a lot of mobility in the forward line so we try to deliver the ball early and often. They know it's coming and they are moving. Once a team plays to the system they are supposed to play to, well then forwards should perform shouldn't they?" suggested McEntee, who with former playing colleague Gareth O'Neill has given Cross an impressive makeover.

"The changes are forced. Players are getting older. They are not as mobile as they used to be," he said.

St Gall's were not as sharp and measured in their play as they were in the earlier part of the year when they clinched an All-Ireland title. Sean Kelly, Aodhan Gallagher and Niblock tried hard to get things moving and CJ McGourty fired over some nice points but they were always chasing.

For Cross, the reappearance of John McEntee after a long absence was welcome and he added a point for good measure. As ever, their right to a place on the shortlist for next March is assured.

Scorers -- Crossmaglen Rangers: O McConville 1-6 (1-0 pen, 0-4f), D McKenna, A Kernan (f) 0-2 each, McNamee, J McEntee 0-1 each. St Gall's: C J McGourty 0-5(3f), K Niblock 0-2 (1f, 1 45), S Kelly, M Pollock 0-1 each.

Crossmaglen Rangers -- P Hearty; P McKeown, P Kernan, J Morgan; A Kernan, D O'Callaghan, S Finnegan; J Hanratty, D McKenna; T Kernan, S Kernan, F Hanratty; M McNamee, O McConville, A Cunningham. Subs: F Bellew for Cunningham (31), B McKeown for P McKeown (36), K Carragher for McNamee (47), J McEntee for Bellew (50).

St Gall's -- Ronan Gallagher; C Brady, A McClean, B Martin; T O'Neill, A Healy, S Kelly; S Burke, A Gallagher; K Stewart, K Niblock, M Pollock; C J McGourty, R Gallagher, Kieran McGourty. Subs: Kevin McGourty for Pollock (ht), M Kelly for Burke (36), S Burns for Kieran McGourty (47), D O'Hare for O'Neill (52).

REF -- J McQuillan

Irish Independent

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