By Shaun Casey
CROSSMAGLEN are back in the Ulster Championship for the first time since 2019 and they’ll open their 2022 account against Monaghan champions Ballybay on Saturday evening.
Stephen Kernan has been in charge of the Rangers since 2020 and is looking forward to his first go at the provincial championship as manager.
“I’m really looking forward to it, it’s where we want to be,” said Kernan, who captained Crossmaglen to an Ulster and All-Ireland title in 2011. “As a player you want to be pitting your wits against the best players in your province.
“It was a goal of ours as players throughout the years and it’s no different for the current players and it’s no different for the management.”
The 11-time Ulster champions have no personal history with Saturday’s opponents, but that doesn’t mean they’re facing into the unknown.
“We know an awful lot about them but it’s not from personal experience. There would be an awful lot of crossover in support of the local areas of Monaghan, Armagh, Louth and Down where you would go to a lot of championship matches.
“That’s always been a thing and it’s still a thing now,” Kernan added. “Obviously with the likes of John McEntee and Oisin McConville managing in Monaghan, a lot of the Crossmaglen people would have gone on numerous occasions to support the boys whenever they were playing championship.
“Ballybay would have been in a lot of their big games. In terms of personal history, we don’t have any with Ballybay but in terms of knowing them and seeing them, we’ve seen them quite regularly actually.”
Crossmaglen’s kicking style and the all-action attacking nature of how they play is exciting to watch and they’ll continue to play that way despite how others may set up against them in the modern era of blanket defences and counter-attacking football.
“We can’t control what other teams are going to do,” said Kernan. “We can only control what we want our boys to do and then hope that number one that they listen to us, and number two that they will go out and execute it.
“It’s taken us a couple of years to get the balance right in terms of being ruthless in attack and ruthless in defence. I think part of the problem that we had was when we lost the ball, it had become normal.
“Because teams had fallen back in numbers there was a lack of accountability then in the tackle and it’s taken a couple of years to get players on the field that do actually have accountability in the tackle. That starts with the full forward line, and it makes life a whole lot easier.
“Now we’ve gotten to a stage where we have to take it up a level against a Ballybay team that’s very, very comfortable in their own skin as Monaghan teams are at playing the ball out from defence and attacking as a team.
“We’ve got to take it up a level because what we’ve done so far in the Armagh championship won’t be good enough.”