Clarke's return boosts Crossmaglen chances
CROSSMAGLEN Rangers have received a boost for Sunday's Ulster club SFC final with the return from suspension of rising young county star Jamie Clarke.
The 14-time Armagh champions have been without the young attacking ace for a full two months as he served a particularly untimely eight-week ban.
His lengthy lay-off ruled him out of the last two rounds of the county championship as well as the club's first two rounds in Ulster, but it expired on November 20.
And the 21-year-old county senior star is being hotly tipped to come straight back into a starting place as the four-time All-Ireland champions go chasing their eighth Ulster title.
"Our team hasn't been named yet, so it's not clear whether Jamie will start, but he is a very versatile player and is capable of slotting anywhere into our forward line," said Crossmaglen secretary Gerard Rushe yesterday.
Crossmaglen's chances were also enhanced before the last round when midfield star John Hanratty was cleared to face Burren at the last minute after a successful appeal to his harsh dismissal against reigning All-Ireland champions St Gall's in the first round.
However, if any club will be conscious of the sort of threat that Clarke's return poses on Sunday, it will be their opponents and first-time Ulster finalists Naomh Chonaill from Donegal.
The Glenties men will have seen, first-hand, the sort of damage the UUJ player can do when he lined out against Donegal in the first round of the All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers in Crossmaglen last summer.
Clarke nabbed two goals within the opening seven minutes of that game and finished it with 2-2 to his name.
It was the sort of performance that has seen him tipped to be Armagh's new Stevie McDonnell or Oisin McConville and he is undoubtedly one for the future.
The Donegal champions have been boosted themselves with a clean bill of health, with Dermot Molloy, who was a worry with a knee injury, definitely available.
Molloy, like club-mates Ciaran Boyle and Leo McLoone, was one of the stars of the Donegal team that lost this year's All-Ireland U-21 final to Dublin and he is the Glenties club's top scorer, kicking five points in their Ulster semi-final defeat of Coalisland.
Both sides scraped through their semi-finals with one-point victories and even Tony McEntee, who took over joint managership of Crossmaglen this year with fellow ex-county player Gareth O'Neill, concedes that Naomh Chonaill, because of their geography, are largely an unknown quantity to them.
"We would watch bits and pieces of club football in the likes of Down, Monaghan, Louth, Derry and Tyrone, but never over as far as Donegal," McEntee admitted.
"We have seen videos of them, but that can be misleading. We're going in somewhat blind, but when it comes to matches we tend to focus on ourselves anyway," he added.