On the day after St. Stephen’s Day in 2009, I pulled up at Shamrock Park in Ballinderry for a challenge match in honour of Conor McCusker. An Ulster XV was turning out against the Crossmaglen Rangers senior team.
Their 32-strong contingent arrived in a bus and warmed up for 30 minutes on the freezing pitch before the throw-in. The conditions were glacial, down to minus six.
The people of Ballinderry had spent two days shovelling snow off the park and blasting the ground with industrial heaters. When our group of 16 past and present ‘masters’ arrived in dribs and drabs, we went straight into the clubhouse and stood chatting and drinking tea.
As the Rangers warmed up, gradually ratcheting up the intensity, we poured over the iced buns and apple tarts.
On the 27th of December 2009, Tony McEntee arrived in South Derry for his first ever game as manager of Cross. They boasted a full squad. No one cried off with hangovers. No one was attending a tupperware party or a stag night. All their county men were there.
From the throw-in, they went at it with their usual zeal. Our team was very strong, players like Justin McMahon, Eoin Bradley, Conor Gormley, Brian McGuigan and Enda Muldoon propping up the few oldies.
The game was more intense than any challenge I have played (save for a bullybatter against Brian McEniff’s Donegal 20 years ago where a few of the Donegal men mysteriously fainted).
In injury time, we scored a point to go one up. They went into overdrive. From the kick-out, they went forward in droves, kicked the equaliser. They came out punching the air.
St. Gall’s have problems. The first is that to compete with Cross, you have to apply yourselves like they do. The West Belfast men rarely field a full strength team in the league. From one week to the next, particularly in the early stages, they are unrecognisable.
Some of their key players dip in and out. Sean Kelly for example no longer plays for Antrim. A few years ago he refused to play in the Tommy Murphy Cup. He is a superb player and quite entitled to make these choices. But it wouldn’t happen in Cross.
Kevin McGourty was man of the tournament at the Sigerson when Queen’s won it some years back. He is extravagantly gifted. Sometimes he plays for the club, sometimes he doesn’t. He is, in fairness, a man apart. He lives close by me and often on league match days I see him padding past in his flip-flops and shorts, like the Big Lebowski.
C. J. McGourty is another extraordinarily gifted footballer. Again, he tends to drift in and out of the footballing year, only knuckling down at the business end. It simply would not happen in Cross.
A salutary tale: Aaron Kernan, their All-Star wing back, got married before the Armagh semi-final against Pearse Ogs. This was in essence the final. In the four week run-up to the game, Aaron got married and had a very short honeymoon. As a result, he missed only three training sessions out of a possible 12. When the starting team was announced, Aaron wasn’t on it!
The second problem is that St. Galls cannot match Crossmaglen’s huge aggression. Put another way, they have crumpled before now in the face of the Rangers’ competitive intensity.
The impression with St. Gall’s, great though they are, is that they are a team that likes to cruise, the Arsenal of Gaelic football. The Armagh men, meanwhile, bring war. As the great Timmy Ryan was wont to say in the Glengooley dressing room “Let every ball be a funeral.” The Cross lads follow that approach religiously, fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of possession.
Thirdly, a team that holds possession and works the ball forward through shortish passing and solo-running is meat and drink to Cross. St. Gall’s are brilliant at this and as a result have become the most decorated sevens team in the modern era. Interestingly, Cross do not play sevens football at all, believing that it breeds bad habits, namely slowing up the play, passing the ball backwards, over-using the handpass, defending and attacking in numbers.
Cross do not handpass. It is banned in training. They kick long. Full-backs to half-forwards, half-backs to full-forwards. The movement of the front three is superb. The ball in is quick, long and accurate.
Against Burren in last year’s Ulster semi-final they provided a classic snapshot of their art. Burren were going well. Their left corner-back came off his man to support his full-back. He took the pass and sprinted diagonally towards the right sideline. Just under the Casement stand, at the half-way line, he tried to hand pass the ball inside. It was intercepted by the Cross left half-back. In a twinkling, you could foresee it all.
He immediately drove a long kick up the left wing to Oisin McConville. All along the Crossmaglen right corner-forward had stood his ground. Now he was loitering alone near the edge of the square, his man frantically racing back.
Oisin took possession and immediately swept a perfect 40 yards crossfield ball into his hands. He collected and drove it to the net. No hand passing, no solo-running, no wasted energy. A perfect goal.
Fourthly, the nightmare that is Jamie Clarke didn’t play against St. Gall’s last year when the Belfast men had their heads handed back to them on a plate in Oliver Plunkett’s Park. In fact, the St Gall’s full back line have never had the pleasure of his company. Their biggest weakness is the high ball. They may brace themselves.
Finally and most importantly, Gall’s fear them, deep down.
At half-time in the Ulster Club final between the two four years ago, there was a point between the teams. I met Joe Kernan under the stand. He was smiling broadly. “ The game’s over “ he said. “They can’t hack it.” He was right. At the final whistle, Cross handed them back their heads on a plate.
It won’t be minus six this Sunday. But it will feel like it for St. Gall’s.