By Shaun Casey
AS the Armagh club leagues come to an end this weekend, focus will soon shift towards the championship and as usual, Crossmaglen head into the business end of the season as favourites to lift the Gerry Fagan Cup.
The Rangers regained their throne last season after losing the 2020 and 2021 championship finals to Maghery and Clann Eireann respectively. But manager Anthony Cunningham, in his first year in charge, says their attention has already turned towards championship.
Unlike the last three seasons, the Armagh SFC will have a group stage format, just as it had in 2018 and 2019, when Cross last won back-to-back titles. A top four finish in Division 1A, which Cross have now secured, sees them go into the draw as top seeds.
“That’s the target,” said Cunningham, an All-Ireland winning captain with Crossmaglen in 2000. “That’s what Cross is about, it’s about winning championships at the end of the day and now’s the time to start performing now that we’re three weeks out.
“The format is new this year. Last year it was a knockout and to be honest I would probably prefer a knockout competition, but it is what it is. It’s a champions league style now so we’ll just make the most of it.”
Crossmaglen face Armagh Harps on Friday evening in their final league game of the year and march into the clash off the back of an 11-point win over Granemore, in what was a repeat of last year’s championship final.
“It was a good win tonight. It was a bad night, but I think it was a good enough quality game, obviously Granemore sat in a wee bit, and we had to break them down but that’s the way it is.
“We were probably short four or five there tonight but it’s all about getting players ready for the championship as well so that was the idea tonight.”
Cunningham has given game time to some rookies this season in the form of Odhran Kieran, Harry Cumiskey and Orin McKeown. Oisin O’Neill has returned from an injury ravaged few years, while Rian O’Neill, Cian McConville and Callum Cumiskey are back from county duty.
“We have Odhran Kieran in and Collie O’Connor back in as well and all working hard and that’s the whole emphasise now is just working on the pitch and if you can do that then you’re in with a chance of playing.
“Rian and Oisin, Cian and Callum, it’s great to have them back playing but they’re a delight to watch and those boys are easy coached.
“I think everyone saw tonight that you just let them work away and play their own game.As I say, they’re like street footballers, you can’t coach them, just let them play football.”
James Morgan and Stephen Morris remain injury concerns, but Cunningham hopes they’ll see some championship action.“I’m not sure,” added Cunningham of a return date. “They got good news during the week so they should be ready for the championship.”