From 1996 Crossmaglen were the dominant team in Armagh club football, and had won titles right through to 2008. Going into the 2009 season there was little to suspect that anything would change.
The year before, Pearse Og had had a glimpse of what they could achieve, but lost to Crossmaglen in the decider.
Andy Mallon, who was a key player for the county, said: “It was the same story in 2008. In the final it was tight at half time and they just went into another gear in the second half. They just knew how to win games and grind out results. We were desperately disappointed because we had been in the game with the last 15 minutes to go.”
That was 13th title in-a-row for Crossmaglen.
Mallon said that the Pearse Og were not entirely downhearted.
“We weren’t that far away. We felt that if we fine-tuned a few things, we might be there or thereabouts.”
One of the younger players on the team that year was Marc Cullen, who remembers that one advantage was their panel.
“We had a big squad in 2009. Everybody was pushing each other. I did think that we could be successful because there was a squad there that knew that that was the year we had to start pushing on.
“There were few more players there like young boys like ourselves there and more experienced men who had been there and knew what to expect.”
The 2009 captain Ciaran McKinney was the county goalkeeper, and he felt the same.
“We knew we had plenty of potential and the team was at an age when we should have been making the breakthrough. We knew we had a mix of experience and youth. We were confident that we had the ability to win a championship but it was hard to say that 2009 was going to be our year.”
Darnell Parkinson had actually stepped away from the team for 2008, and had not planned to be part of the 2009 campaign.
“I hadn’t been enjoying football as much, and I went off to university in Liverpool. I actually spent the summer of 2008 in San Francisco playing football with the Ulster club. I had the best summer ever, but that reignited the passion to come back and give the Ogs 100 percent dedication.”
Andy Mallon’s 2008 was non-existent. He broke his arm playing against Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship. He rushed to get back fit for the club campaign, but ended up fracturing his arm a second time. So he had to watch from the sideline as Cross beat the Ogs. That only got him motivated to be right for 2009.
For Ciaran McKinney, he had decided that 2008 would be his last as Armagh goalkeeper. In 2009, he was going to be focused on the club: “When I started 2009 I had one team to focus on.”
The 2009 season saw Brendan Hughes take over as manager. Adrian Clarke had been the manager of the team, and took a lot of the players from u-10 through to senior.
Andy Mallon was one of them.
Mallon said of Clarke: “He was a really good man, and a really good manager. A great clubman. But we couldn’t get past Cross.
“He decided to step down to freshen things up.”
Ciaran McKinney said that preparations were taken to the next level.
“There was a focus on athleticism. We had Malcolm McCusland in. He is a highly regarded athletics coach. There was more specific training for different players in different positions.”
The season didn’t start too well as they lost to Culloville in the first game.
However, there were signs that the team were making progress. They played Crossmaglen twice in the league and drew with them on both occasions.
Andy Mallon said: “We should have beaten them in the second game. The fact that we hadn’t beaten them in years, that gave us confidence. We should have beaten them. I think they got a free late on and Tony Kernan put it over.”
They started to build towards the championship and they played challenge games against teams from Dublin and Tyrone.
Andy Mallon said: “That was unheard of to go outside the county.”
Darnell Parkinson remembers going to play St Vincent’s.
“They would go on to win Club All-Irelands. We played them in 2009 and 2010 and we beat them by 30-odd points. We beat them out the gate. It was games like that gave us so much confidence. In the league we weren’t setting the world on fire, but we were playing really good teams in challenge matches.”
Brendan Hughes also amped up preparations in the week before the championship.
Andy Mallon said: “Brendan said that we were going on a training week in the lead up to the first round. We were like ‘What? This isn’t county’.
“He said we had to be on the training field every night at seven o’clock for a half seven start. We trained hard every night. That was unheard of back then. He went through game plans, the way he wanted us to play, defence, forwards, more fitness, more tactics. It was good, fresh training.”
But things did not go entirely to plan. The team found out that Gregory Loughran, their centre half forward and an ex-county player who pulled the strings for the Ogs, was moving to America.
Andy Mallon said: “After playing so well throughout the season, losing a player meant that we were slightly worried that things might not go so well.”
Darnell Parkinson said: “Loughie leaving was big. He was one of the best club footballers in Armagh. So a lot of people were thinking that that is the Ogs’ chance gone. Him leaving gave myself, Sean Moore, Declan McManus a chance to come in and stake a claim.”
When the Ogs heard that they had got Crossmaglen in the quarter-final that fully focused their minds.
Andy Mallon said: “There was anxiousness but a lot of excitement. We had drew with them twice in the league and we were confident. You are always going to be up against it against Cross. They are seriously competitive.”
Darnell Parkinson felt that there was a key point to 2009 that everyone was aware of.
“Everyone knew that if you were going to win the championship in Armagh then you had to beat Cross. They weren’t going anywhere.”
Andy Mallon said that the game was close and they fought hard.
“I remember there was 10 minutes to go and Tony (Kernan) got the ball. I’d been doing well on Tony, but he turned and swung it over. I thought to myself ‘is this the start of it (of Crossmaglen’s fight back)?’”
But it wasn’t.
Ciaran McKinney said: “It was a low-scoring game. We had had close games against Crossmaglen and they would come back to draw or win. I can remember the excitement and euphoria afterwards. That is one of my favourite memories in the lead up to the final.”
Darnell Parkinson said: “A lot of people didn’t even consider that it was only a quarter-final. We hadn’t won anything. There was a pitch invasion. It took me 15 minutes to get from one end of the field to the other. That was the first time we realised how much this meant to the club. I had grown men hugging me and crying. All I was thinking was that it was only a quarter-final. The lads knew that we couldn’t let it go. We had to go and finish the job.”
Ciaran McKinney said that the Cross win was hugely important.
“We knew we had the potential to go and win that championship. It was down to us. We had to perform.”
During the celebrations in the immediate moments after the game, Ronan Clarke called the team together.
Andy Mallon remembered what he said: “He said that it would be the biggest shame and disgrace if we beat the All-Ireland champions and not win the championship. That took us back down to earth. We were joyful but there was an anxiousness.”
Ciaran McKinney said that while Pearse Og knew they were the best team left in the competition, there was a danger there.
“We knew that we couldn’t slip up. It was something that played on my mind. I didn’t want to be part of a team that did all the hard work and let someone else go on to win the championship.”
Their next opponent was Clann Eireann. Ryan Henderson was one of the key players.
But he wasn’t allowed to play. They were able to keep him quiet.
Andy Mallon said: “It was a tough game but not as tough as Crossmaglen. We were gaining composure.”
Darnell Parkinson said: “There was no arrogance in the squad. We were first class in the first half against Clann Eireann. The match was over at half time. Thankfully, because I didn’t have a good game in the second half.”
The win set up a clash with their Armagh City rivals the Harps.
This was met with great delight.
Andy Mallon said: “The town took on a different life. It was as if that was all anyone spoke about. It was like a carnival. It was a distraction that some of the young lads got caught up in. Us older heads knew to separate ourselves from that.”
Darnell Parkinson said: “With it being two town teams the banter was top class. There was blue and white and green and gold everywhere.
“I actually lived in the bottom end of the town, in Abbey Park. That’s 30 seconds from the Harps pitch. So there was blue and white everywhere. But myself and my neighbour were two Ogs families and our houses were decked out in green and gold. It was great for the town.”
Marc Cullen said: “Everybody was talking about it. Other clubs were interested in the final because it was two rival clubs and also that Cross weren’t in the final.”
In preparation for this huge final, Brendan Hughes decided to really test the team.
Andy Mallon said: “In the week before the final, the Railway Cup team had been announced. Joe Kernan was the manager. We were training the weekend before. Brendan said to us that we were playing Ulster during the week in the Athletic Grounds. We were like ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘we are playing the Railway Cup team’.
“Alarm bells were going off in my head. I was thinking that it could destroy players’ confidence if we were beat out the gate by Ulster.”
Darnell Parkinson remembers how good the line-up was.
“We played Ulster and the full-forward line was Paddy Bradley, Michael Murphy, Benny Coulter. Thank God I had been moved out of full-back.
“Games like that gave us more confidence. That was the game that gave us confidence.”
But the game wasn’t about just testing the players.
Andy Mallon said: “We arrived at the Athletic Grounds and some of the younger lads were like, who am I going to be marking here. They were white as ghosts. For the county boys it was daunting as well.
“I remember running out onto the pitch and at the same time a few of the Harps lads were up getting their pictures taken for the county final programme. I can only imagine what the Harps boys were thinking, they were playing us in a few days and we were playing Ulster.
“In a way it was a master-stroke by Brendan Hughes. He knew that in the town everyone would know we played Ulster. It was saying that we could mix it.”
And so the final rolled around. The anticipation and excitement peaked on that big day.
However, the game did not deliver.
Darnell Parkinson said: “It was a complete damp squib. It was the worst day to play football in. There was torrential rain, and the wind was terrible. The game ended 0-8 to 0-4. It was 0-4 each at half time. Brendan said to us ‘what are you doing, you have not stuck to a game-plan’.
“But it was really the defence that won it that year. A lot of the games it was the defence that was important.”
What was important was that they got the result.
Andy Mallon said: “That season was so important. We had put so much work in over the years. We had won juvenile titles, minor titles. We had won an Ulster Minor title. There was a lot of work from Adrian Clarke, Louis O’Neill, John Carson. Guys that had taken us right through and worked so hard.
“That year that we did win was so important. You could see the relief of all those people. They were so relieved that we got our title for all the hard work.
“To win that title with Kieran Hughes, who had won a title at the start of his career. He had come full circle. He was a legend. To play alongside him was amazing. Even playing with the likes of Ronan Clarke, Shorty Clarke, Chris Rafferty, guys who are quality players. We had a good team, and it was great to get over the line with them.”
Ciaran McKinney said that he remembers the immediate aftermath.
“That short walk that I made from the Pearse Og club to home. I had left that club so many times before. But this time I was walking with the trophy in my hand and my wife Lana. It was great to take time to myself to take stock of the day. I had left the Pearse Ogs, it was hiving. It was great. I just thought about what we had achieved. Myself and that group of players had been striving for that.”
Marc Cullen said: “It was a great night, a great week of celebrations. Everyone enjoyed it. It was a great buzz. It is great to be able to talk about it now.”
Ciaran McKinney said: “I can remember when the Ogs won the title in 1992. I looked up to those players. And I wanted to win a title as well. Hopefully there are players who are coming up now and will look up to the players who are playing now who won the title that year, and be inspired to go on and win a championship with the Ogs.”
Darnell Parkinson said: “There are so many great players around that time who didn’t get a medal because Cross were so dominant. But we have our championship medal.”