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Preview: Crossmaglen Rangers v Kilcoo, Ulster club SFC final

Will Crossmaglen prove the bookies right, or can Kilcoo spring a massive shock?

Crossmaglen captain David McKenna and Kilcoo captain Gary McEvoy ahead of Sunday's AIB Ulster Club Senior Football Championship Final.
Crossmaglen captain David McKenna and Kilcoo captain Gary McEvoy ahead of Sunday's AIB Ulster Club Senior Football Championship Final.
Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

Ulster club SFC final

Sunday: Crossmaglen Rangers (Armagh) v Kilcoo (Down), Athletic Grounds, Armagh, 2pm (Ref: Joe McQuillan, Cavan)

Clues from the form guide… Where does the form guide even begin when it comes to the Armagh champions, indeed it stretches back so far there must’ve been so many healthy Christmases in the village over the last decade that the local butchers took a serious hit on turkey and ham sales. But never mind where it began, where it all ends is a bigger worry to the rest of clubs in the north, and south for that matter.

Even if this version of the side is slightly different to the one that went before, they are still crafting quite a legacy. A win in this final and that’ll make it two out three, five out of six and six out of eight championships in what’s believed to be the toughest province to win club football games in.

That’s simply startling to the extent it’s getting difficult to differentiate between crowning moments and even more difficult to comprehend just what they’ve done. The draw in Ulster this year hasn’t been easy but no matter, they battered St Eunan’s from the opening bell and last day, when Errigal Ciaran tried to go toe-to-toe, they just couldn’t keep pace with the back-to-back All Ireland champions.

As for Kilcoo, this is all new, which makes their achievement hugely impressive in a very different way.

It was 72 years in waiting when they finally got their hands on a county title under Jim McCorry in 2009. He was probably ahead of his time as Armagh boss in the 1990s but his time has now come and on the back of just a second post-World War II Down championship, getting all the way to an Ulster final is a great accomplishment.

A six-point win over Ballybay in the last eight is nothing spectacular, but their victory the last day over St Gall’s certainly was. Despite having 14 men on the pitch, despite trailing and despite Conor Laverty being held to just a point, they still fell over the finishing line and into this final, something no one would have predicted.  But now for the hard part.

Checking the odds… Not surprisingly, the Ulster champions have even the bookies scared, coming in at 1-6 in a provincial final with a five-point handicap. It’s still a good bet, unlike the big numbers next to Kilcoo, who are out at 5/1 to win despite the season they’ve just had. For first goalscorer Jamie Clarke is 4-1, while on the other side Conor Laverty is 8-1 but best bet may be Cross to score the first goal at 8-13 given the sweeping, open and fast football they play.

A topic for pub chat… Are Cross the best club team to ever play the game? Nemo Rangers may have one more All Ireland, but they started making a name for themselves by going all the way back in 1973. Meanwhile St Finbarr’s will argue that having three football titles to their name along with two hurling titles makes them the greatest.

If that can’t keep you going, how about Johnny Hanratty suggesting Crossmaglen are the saviours of football’s soul. You want our take on that?

Come on man, as amazing as ye are, other teams play open football too, the game has never been better and doesn’t need saving, and does a physio hitting a player and Eamon O’Boyle being hurled to the ground and shook up by a man half his age not take away from the salvation a little.

There’s bad losing but there’s bad winning too and their talking should really be saved for on the field.

The game breakers are… How well Cross play because this game is in their hands. If they move the ball and play the sort of total football they’ve played in previous rounds, then they’ll be champions. Again. Stephen Kernan in particularly is key.

We never saw the best of him with Armagh – perhaps because of the expectations and the role of his father – but right now he is a joy to watch as he sits at 11, drops deep and feeds perfect ball to Jamie Clarke. We know about him but we’ve forgotten about Oisín McConville.

He may not be making as many runs as he did in his younger years, but he’s clever with his movement, can still finish and that means he’s still lethal.

But in truth, they are that way all over the field. Hanratty and David McKenna, a guy who didn’t look the part with county in 2008, are formidable in midfield, but even go back to Paul Hughes at corner-back and you’ll see a guy who will pop up everywhere and will footpass to the chest 40 yards downfield. It’s quite phenomenal and unless Cross collapse, then they’ll win.

Gazing into the crystal ball… If all this sounds a little one-sided, that’s because it is. It’s not to underestimate what Kilcoo have done, and they are certainly in a final on merit. They are defensive, dogged, work hard and will look to use Laverty on the break.

Theirs is a system that’s been proven to work against even the better clubs out there. But that’s not what they face here and if the Down side are bullied at midfield, it’ll be a massacre; but if they aren’t then they might stay close for a half of football yet won’t keep pace till the finishing post.

Verdict: Crossmaglen by six

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