This Sunday, marks the return of Ulster club football’s most synonymous name to the Orchard County showpiece, after a three year hiatus. In the third of our #SuperSundaySextet previews, Rangers forward Kyle Carragher talks weight sessions, Rian O’Neill and the Ballymacnab in him, as Cross prepare to battle the Round Towers.
“The only way we will be forgiven for the last two years, is if we go and win this one” – Kyle Carragher
Kyle Carragher is part of a very exclusive club, within a very exclusive club. It’s not a club it’s members talk about too often, it’s a club that may even have slipped the consciousness of many Gael’s throughout the country. A club, who’s seven members meet regularly, five nights a week I’m told, and who’s home houses are almost within earshot of each other. A club that may well be on the verge of shaking off the dust and cobwebs of the last few years, and placing itself right back in the foreground of the mind’s eye, this Winter.
Along with Aaron and Tony Kernan, David McKenna, Johnny Hanratty, Rico Kelly and Mickey McNamee; Kyle Carragher has went to the well, and come back three times with club All-Ireland water. Seven provincial club titles, and a few county championships to boot, and you start getting the picture. He’s an interesting man to talk to.
The past three years have been the leanest in the now 30 year-old’s footballing career. For a man, old enough to remember the first of the thirteen in a row between ’96 and 2008, and young enough to have pulled on the famous black and amber jersey for the last three of them, not featuring in an Armagh Senior Championship Final since 2015, has left him and his teammates ravenous.
“I suppose when you look back at the semi-final defeats by Maghery and Cullyhanna the last couple of years, we thought we were hungry. We had no excuse not to be – we had a young side with lads who hadn’t their hands on any sort of medal at Senior level. But sometimes, it’s about young lads learning to deal with the pressure and expectations of the town, and the people in it. It’s all part and parcel of playing for Cross, and it’s not a complaint. It’s always driven us on. The fact is, the only way we’ll be forgiven for the past two years, is if we go and win this one. That’s just the way it is”.
The penny may just have dropped for a crop of exciting young players, who look set to ensure the entertainment value at St. Oliver Plunkett Park, continues to be as good as most people in the town have ever known.
Youngsters like Alan Farrelly and Aaron Smylie have been introduced to a back six marshalled by captain and talisman Aaron Kernan, alongside county star James Morgan. Stephen Morris and Oisín O’Neill are quickly becoming stars in their own right around the middle of the field, and the injection of a fabulously talented group of score-getters to the forward line, to add to the wiliness and know-how of Kyle and Tony Kernan, makes for a lot of beautiful football.
But for all the fluidity and flamboyance, any body who watched from the stand as Cross dismantled arch-rivals Cullyhanna in the Athletic Grounds a fortnight ago, couldn’t help but be impressed with the ferocity and physicality that this new generation brought to proceedings. A physicality, Carragher explains, that hasn’t happened by accident.
“It’s was a performance that’s been brewing awhile. The intensity in training certainly lifted going into the game against Armagh Harps, and then again for Cullyhanna. We decided as a group this year to stick rigidly to the strength and conditioning programs laid on for us. I think it’s fair to say that in the last couple of years, weight sessions have been looked at as optional amongst a lot of the squad. But this year, we came together and said that if the club are willing to put the money towards these experts coming in every five or six weeks to review what we’re doing in the gym, that we need to repay that investment. For the likes of Rian and Oisín, Stephen Morris, Paudie Stuttard and Johnny McKeever, you’ve seen them fill out and become more of a presence on the field and it looks like it’s beginning to pay off”.
Carragher notched two elegant points from play in a fine performance against their close neighbours, underlining his worth to a forward line that looks younger and younger every time it takes the field. But undoubtedly the star of the show that day, and the name on everyone’s lips at the minute, is that of Rian O’Neill.
The former St Colman’s College starlet, was simply sublime, expressing his full range of point-scoring prowess on a Cullyhanna defence that could only stand-on and watch like everyone else at times. Having not opted to play county football last year, Kieran McGeeney must surely be rubbing his hands together at the prospect of having both Rian and brother Oisín at his disposal for the incoming campaign.
And Carragher, who has seen his fair share of class acts at close quarters as part of the Cross forward line over the years, believes the teenager can be every bit as good as a relative who didn’t do too badly for himself.
“He’s definitely got the potential to be as good as his uncle Oisín (McConville), but he’s still young and learning the game. At the same time, what strikes you most about Rian is that he is an old head on young shoulders and very much a leader amongst that group of younger lads we have. He has that ability to take boys along with him, and when he’s at it in training, you can see all the other lads around him lift it as well. We have seen only a glimpse of what he’s capable of, at this stage, and look, we are very lucky to have him”.
“Arrogance is a good thing if it’s earned and channelled in the right way” – Kyle Carragher
Another facet to O’Neill’s game that he has been impressed by is the quiet confidence of the player. Rangers, criticised over the years, in some parts, for being almost on the edge of brash in their arrogance, Kyle believes that being labelled as such, can be no bad thing if used correctly.
“Rian has that bit of attitude to his game too, that everyone who’s going to be at the top needs. You know, there’s that little bit of ruthlessness – that little bit of arrogance in him. Arrogance is a good thing if it’s earned and channelled in the right way. I watched an interview with Oisín a couple of months ago where he was talking about the boys who were on the All-Ireland winning teams with him back in the nineties, and was comparing that side to the Dublin side of today. He referred to having a couple of “bad f***ers” in amongst them. Boys like Francie, Joe Fitz, Anthony Cunningham. These boys would still take the head of you today! Every team needs a few boys like that”.
The psychological domination that Cross has held over their rivals, both within county lines, and across the island over the last twenty five years, has played no small part in their success. It has long been a notion that many an opponent cowered at the sight of the famous striped jersey, and that games were won at times, before a ball was even thrown in.
Carragher is adamant that Sunday’s opponents Ballymacnab will bring a completely different mindset to proceedings. The son of a Ballymacnab lady himself, he is in no doubt what it will take to overcome the Round Towers.
“Well, that’s one thing for sure. They have absolutely no fear of us! Some people have already mentioned the game seven years ago (when Crossmaglen ran out 2-22 to 0-03 winners over Ballymacnab in a one sided 2011 Armagh final) and it’s totally irrelevant. You’re talking about two complete different groups of players. They’re league champions here in Armagh and Bernie Murray has them seriously well organised. They have beaten us twice this year already and play a very different brand of football to our own, in building from the back and running the ball. So we’re under no illusions. If we take our eyes of the ball for one second we’ll leave the Athletic Grounds with our tails between our legs”.
Comprehensive wins over Sarsfields, Whitecross and Dromintee in the group stages, and an equally relaxed day against Killeavy in the quarter finals, was followed by a ding-dong encounter with Maghery in the semis for the Newtown Road side. Having pipped Cullyhanna to clinch their first ever silverware at senior level, in the shape of the league, the Round Towers will have plenty of experience to call on themselves in the shape of ball-carriers Mickey Beagan and Rory Grugan around the middle. Import, Paul Meegan has been an impressive addition to the side following his transfer from Tyrone side Eskra last year, and in Gavin McParland’s left boot they have a reliable source of scores.
The bookies may have Cross as strong favourites for Sunday evening’s encounter, with some going as short as 1/4 on the South-Armagh kingpins capturing their 44th county crown. But if form and consistency are anything to go by, and if Ballymacnab can believe they can take that final step and go toe-to-toe with Kieran Donnelly and Donal Murtgah’s talented side, then things may be a lot more interesting than what the layers suggest it will be.