Wednesday 24 April 2019

Power from within generates ambition to keep on winning

Crossmaglen's unmatched strike rate in club football is built on hard work, continuity and high standards, as Damian Lawlor discovers

‘The Armagh side’s longevity surely stems from the resilience of their past’
‘The Armagh side’s longevity surely stems from the resilience of their past’

JUST over a month ago, Tony Brady and Peter McMahon left their homes in Crossmaglen and headed towards Croke Park.

On the way to Dublin they discussed a presentation they were giving at the GAA's annual Games Development Conference, a popular event that gathers almost 700 coaches, ravenous for the latest information, trends and expertise.

Next Saturday, if they beat St Brigid's, Crossmaglen will be another step closer to becoming the first side to win three All-Ireland club football championships in a row. Little wonder, then, that Brady and McMahon found themselves making their presentation to a packed and captivated audience at HQ.

"The secret of Crossmaglen's success is that there is no secret," Brady said, almost downplaying their achievements. "We're just the same as any other club, run the same, we have the same challenges."

But as the two men spoke, the route to their glory was signposted a little more clearly.

They seem to retain almost every player they produce, bringing them through from underage ranks to senior playing level and then into a coaching role just as they wind down their careers. Very few ever leave the family.

With 16 Armagh senior titles, 10 Ulster crowns and six All-Ireland championships, they head to Mullingar next weekend bursting with a reassurance that other clubs can only dream of. The

Roscommon champions are themselves hugely successful, but they'll take on a different beast next Saturday.

The Armagh side's longevity surely stems from the resilience of their past, dominated by years of occupancy from British Forces. During the 1970s and '80s they endured that hostility together, holding their dignity before regaining full use of their property. "There were concerted efforts to drive us out of existence, but we emerged from the Troubles to redress years of stagnation and under-investment," Brady says.

Then there were the economic difficulties, woes that have revisited us in the past few years. The stats show that those who live in and around Crossmaglen are again experiencing more hardship than most.

"The South Armagh area we're situated in is top of the deprivation charts," McMahon says. "But we've made a conscious decision over the last few years to engage with political and community leaders to promote South Armagh in terms of economic development and tourism. And when some councillors came down from Belfast to see our club five years ago, they were amazed to see that there was no graffiti in the town, which is a big sign of how we have decreased anti-social behaviour."

The club has just come to the end of a five-year strategic cycle and is preparing to invest in their next five-year plan which could cost in the region of £2.35m. It will include new floodlights, another training pitch, dressing rooms and a general upgrading of facilities.

Despite the difficult climate they look ahead with confidence. Notwithstanding the high local rate of unemployment, the club continues to thrive, both on and off the field.

"With all the big games (both club and inter-county) that have been held in Crossmaglen over the years, we estimate that we have brought in one million visitors and helped generate £20m for the local economy," revealed McMahon. "And we have a lot more to contribute."

While the club is the undoubted core of community life, footballers do not grow on trees. The club has three rival outfits within a three-mile radius and there are only 1,300 families in the parish. Yet, they have the knack of keeping members attached.

When they claimed their breakthrough All-Ireland club title in 1997, for instance, the emergence of 10 of those players could clearly be traced to a Féile-winning team in 1988. They only win a minor or an under 16 county championship every 10 years or so because the targets set for youngsters are not determined by success or medals.

Tim Gregory, the club's youth officer, is an inspiration. Gregory's mantra is very simple: 'The most important thing you can give a child is your time.'

"We take our pastoral role as coaches very seriously," says Brady. "It's not just about football. We try to ensure that the coaches and the senior players know what is happening in the lives of these kids – how they're getting on in school, at home – what they're interested in, that sort of stuff.

"We put in the right kind of help, we don't want an underage coach with a poor demeanour or dour manner, we look carefully at who we appoint. They must have a certain manner to complement their technical knowledge. And we strive to have every underage player still active in the club when they're 25. That could be as a player or a coach or an administrator, or helping out in the social club."

Jamie Clarke, David McKenna and James Morgan are the new stars, following the likes of Oisín McConville and, more recently, Aaron Kernan and other role models like his brother, Stephen.

They are young men with some depth to them. Recently, just before a Crossmaglen underage camogie team hit the road to fulfill a fixture they had little chance of winning, Stephen hopped onto the team bus to remind the girls that even if they faced a mountainous task they were still representing the club. They had to be mindful of the jersey on their backs. His words were lapped up.

Then there's the football side of things. Their kicking game, direct style and free-scoring displays have caught the imagination of the public.

The club has a check list they examine after each game. They firstly adhere to the creed that the ball moves faster than the man. Then they seek to create 25 scoring chances per game and aim to win 65 per cent of breaking ball. The players aspire to keep a clean sheet and look to have at least 70 per cent of possession in open play.

While those standards are regularly met, it's hard to see them slipping too far down the pecking order. The structures are too good.

There are no kid gloves either. When Johnny Murtagh returned from America in 2011 after working in construction, he was immediately brought into the Armagh set-up. With Crossmaglen, however, his services were not required. They won an All-Ireland without him.

And despite being on the Armagh panel, Stephen Finnegan was last year left off the squad for an alleged breach of discipline and was not part of the Ulster final match-day squad. In that final, Aaron Cunningham was hauled off after just 32 minutes.

There's an edge to everything they do. "No club is a big happy family all the time," admits McMahon. "Like all the rest, we disagree with each other from time to time but that's okay once everything is in the best interest of Cross'.

"As we've said we're not hung up on winning everything at underage level which is a good thing, so players enjoy coming through the ranks with us. But we know full well that this constant success line will not always be there," McMahon adds.

"We realise that our senior success is like a long hot summer and that there will be winter ahead. But we'll try to enjoy those winter days too in the knowledge that there will be spring or summer days ahead."

To finish, McMahon made one extremely clever comparison between Cross' and the popular children's movie, Kung Fu Panda. In the kids' tale, the lead character finally gets hold of the Dragon's Scroll, a document that is said to hold the secret to "limitless power". But when opened it contains no words only a blank reflective surface. "The message," finished Brady, "is that there is no secret. The power comes from within."

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