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Niblock ready for 'baptism of fire' as champions enter lion's den

AMONG the powerhouses of club football that are eyeing All-Ireland success in March, there will be a quiet satisfaction that St Gall's and Crossmaglen will test each other's mood first.

That St Gall's travel to Crossmaglen tomorrow as favourites seems a little odd, despite being reigning All-Ireland champions. The Armagh side need little introduction. In that run of 13 successive county championships, seven Ulster titles and four All-Ireland crowns, they played 108 championship games that included 89 wins, 10 draws and just nine losses.

And after returning to the summit of Armagh football, they'll surely enjoy the novelty of being underdogs in the own back yard.

"It's a baptism of fire," agreed St Gall's and Antrim star Kevin Niblock. "It's all on the line for us -- the Ulster and Ireland titles -- and we couldn't have a more difficult place to go."

Considering Cross have won 14 of the last 15 Armagh titles and St Gall's have picked up nine of the last 10 Antrim crowns, this should be one of club football's greatest rivalries. But, for the large part, fate has conspired to keep them apart and their only significant clash came in the Ulster final of 2007.

"I try not to think about that day too much. It was one of the worst days of my footballing career," sighed Niblock. "It's hard to say what happened there, but they always got a score when they needed it.


"Sean Kelly got injured and that threw us off our stride. Oisin McConville got a goal too. At the end of the game I remember thinking 'How did they just beat us?' They always managed to find something when they needed it."

Cross would win the All-Ireland the following March, which only emphasised the 'what if' element of that defeat for St Gall's. But they finally won the Andy Merrigan Cup earlier this year, much to the relief of Niblock.

"We didn't necessarily play better last year than any of the other years. We just got the rub of the green and you need that in a club campaign," he said.

St Gall's have a clean bill of health, with Niblock returning after picking up an ankle injury in the county final. Cross are still without the suspended Jamie Clarke, who starred for Armagh this summer, and they have also had to recover from a host of retirements in the wake of last year's semi-final defeat to Pearse Og.

"They've lost a few all right but they have a lot of good young players coming through and if anything, they're more mobile now than they were in 2007," said Niblock.

Irish Independent