By Shaun Casey
THERE’S pride in pulling on that famed black and amber Crossmaglen jersey but there’s also the heavy weight of history attached to it.
Sure, the likes of Sleacht Neill, Kilcoo and currently Glen have had their periods of domination in the province, but the lasting measure of any of the champions will always be, could they have dealt with Cross in their pomp?
So many tried and failed to battle past the Rangers during their glory years. Those days of challenging for Ulsters and All-Irelands seemed to have slipped away in recent years, with their Armagh title no longer a foregone conclusion. Oisin O’Neill believes they can’t rely on All-Ireland winners such as Aaron Kernan, Jamie Clarke and James Morgan to carry the can forever.
O’Neill, back playing club championship football for the first time since 2021 after a long spell on the sidelines, insists his generation are keen to write their own history.
“Every time you put on the Cross jersey it’s not pressure, it’s a privilege,” said O’Neill, older brother of Armagh joint-captain Rian.
“It’s an unbelievable club to be a part of but we would have had a lot of regrets over the last couple of years. We felt like we had put ourselves in positions to win two county finals (2020 and 2021) and didn’t win them.
“I know the boys were very disappointed after the Ballybay game last year (in the first round of Ulster), we didn’t manage that game well last year when we got a black card. We’re trying to take the learnings from all that and put it all together this year and see where it takes us.
“The experience that those boys bring is brilliant but a lot of us, we came in after those boys had won All-Irelands and I’m not saying we’re even thinking of winning All-Irelands, but we feel like we need to take up a bit of the slack.”
Cross topped their championship group in Armagh with two convincing wins over Sarsfields and Mullaghbawn following an opening day draw with Clan na Gael. Now all the focus will be on Armagh Harps with the objective to reach the last four.
“We’re old enough now, there’s a group in round my age of 26, 25, 24, we’re about long enough now. This is my eighth year playing for Cross seniors so we feel like we should be taking up some of the slack and not always relying on those older boys.
“We should be driving the thing on and maintaining the standards and hopefully pushing on. We’ll not look any further than the Harps, but we’d love to win the county title again.”
There’s a strong family connection in Crossmaglen and the team is built around brothers and cousins. Oisin and Rian O’Neill are probably two of the best siblings in the province when on song while they have their younger cousin Cian McConville to call upon as well.
“Not only are they your brothers or your cousins or whatever, but they’re also good friends too and it’s always nice to play with people that you get on well with,” explained O’Neill.
“We had a rivalry; our mother was sick beating the back window telling us to stop kicking lumps out of one another and it’s probably the same now at training and that.
“Every team I’ve played on, Rian’s been a part of it, and we feel like we work well with each other on the pitch and if it is a case that I’m playing out the field and need a break, Rian can always cover me and vice versa. It’s nice to have that understanding.”
There’s a telepathic communication too. Quite often, Oisin is out grafting around the middle of the field while Rian is the danger man on the edge of the square and when Oisin gets the ball, he knows where to put it.
And vice versa. If the two siblings switch roles mid-game, Oisin can drift into full-forward confident that if he makes a run, younger brother Rian will find him with a pass.
But the pair, even at county level, aren’t the only moving targets to hit in the respective forward lines. When O’Neill lifts his head in the direction of the opposition’s goal, at both club and county, he isn’t short on options.
“I don’t think you’re deliberately looking for him, it’s just something that happens,” added O’Neill, a teacher in St Colman’s College. “He knows my passing range and he knows where to move, and I’ll find him.
“But whenever you look up, for both Cross and Armagh, in the forward lines, you’re spoilt for choice of who to pass it to. It is just a matter of giving the right pass to the right person at the right time.”