By Shaun Casey
SUNDAY’S showdown with Clan na Gael won’t be the first time Crossmaglen have crossed swords with Clan na Gael this season as the sides contested the opening round of the group stages.
Played at Davitt Park, the Rangers looked to have wrapped up an opening day win, but a late, punched goal from Armagh star Shane McPartlan earned Ronan McMahon’s men a share of the spoils.
“We were probably the first team that got to see that these boys mean business,” said Crossmaglen captain Jamie Clarke, reflecting on that first round tie.
“It’s the first thing we noticed and we knew they were going to be in knocking around the latter stages of the championship.
“I suppose their win over Clann Éireann didn’t really come as a surprise to us because we know the quality that they have. They’re well set-up, they’re fit and well drilled as well. It’s going to be a tight final but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”
Crossmaglen had their own tough tussle in their semi-final clash with Madden, but a late surge in the final quarter saw them book their place in the championship final for the sixth season on the bounce.
“We had a good league campaign,” added Clarke. “We were missing the county boys and a few others, and the likes of Madden were probably one of the toughest teams to beat.
“We knew that they were going to be a force in the championship. They’ve been knocking on the door, and they have great quality up top and their very well drilled and well setup.
“It was a tight game, and we knew it was going to be like that, it’s a county semi-final. Teams in Armagh are improving all the time, and it was just nice to get over the line and back to a final.”
Clarke is one of the older heads in the Crossmaglen changing room and one of the few still playing that has an All-Ireland medal in his back pocket. Only Clarke and Aaron Kernan started the 2012 All-Ireland final replay win over Garrycastle, the last time the Rangers claimed the Andy Merrigan Cup.
But there’s another surge of young hopefuls coming through the ranks at the minute, hoping to secure a 47th county title for the south Armagh men.
A handful of players picked up their first championship medal last year, while the likes of Aaron O’Neill, young brother of Armagh stars Rian and Oisin, is hoping to claim his first.
“We’re all getting old, so we need the youth to come off the bench and all those younger boys are well fit for this stage,” added Clarke, who has hit 2-11 for Anthony Cunningham’s side in the championship.
“We place a big focus now on the strength and conditioning in the club and you can see how certain players are just developing even from last year and coming right through to the county final now.
“Odhran Kieran, Odhran Carragher, Ronan Fitzpatrick, they’re all coming through now and they’re all able to do their job.”