BRIGHT FUTURE FOR PROMOTED CROSS
Unlike last time they won an Armagh Division Two title, Crossmaglen can now look forward to testing themselves against the Orchard’s top clubs on a regular basis the following season.
Back in 2017, the league was just split into two large divisions and Crossmaglen outclassed opponents in romping through the lower one with a 100 percent record, captain Lauren McConville even running up an astonishing tally of 10-10 in one fixture.
They sealed the deal by beating Mullabrack in a league final, but a restructure over that winter which created four smaller sections meant Cross found themselves in a new-look Division Two the following season.
Last year, Cross were in the title mix but a loss at Lissummon scuppered the prospect of a winner-take-all showdown with Shane O’Neills, who went up and are now only one victory away from being crowned Armagh league champions for the first time.
For their part, Cross are worthy winners of Division Two having recorded early away wins over main rivals Granemore and Lissummon after the condensed campaign eventually got underway in mid-July.
They had defeated last season’s Intermediate Championship runners-up Mullaghbawn in between but Peter McMahon and Maria O’Donnell’s team then had to wait a month for their fourth and final fixture after Mullabrack failed to field against them.
Crossmaglen went into last Tuesday’s home match against Killeavy, originally postponed in late July due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the St Moninna club, already guaranteed the title having been awarded the points from a walkover against Mullabrack.
Although a Crossmaglen defeat would have meant either Granemore or Lissummon could yet match their tally of eight points, those clubs couldn’t both get there as they still have to play each other.
So, at most, it would only have been a two-way tie at the top in which case the first criteria of head-to-head result would have favoured Crossmaglen on the basis that they had already beaten both of the other contenders.
However, finishing off with a win was a much more appealing prospect and Cross duly completed their campaign with a 100 percent record by triumphing 3-16 to 3-6, though they were given a spirited challenge by Killeavy, who only trailed by three points at the last water break.
Current county panellist Mairead Watters was used sparingly 48 hours before her Armagh Intermediate Championship camogie semi-final for Culloville and Megan O’Callaghan was among several absentees, but Cross still had too much firepower.
Armagh star Lauren McConville and her sister Aoibheann both made their mark but Crossmaglen’s most prolific forward of this campaign, Alex Clarke, caught the eye most with another dazzling display.
Not everything she tried came off and Cross squandered some chances but, fittingly, county newcomer Clarke rounded things off with a scorching run, carving through the Killeavy defence at pace, before delivering a lethal right-footed finish to the net.
That took her tally to 2-4, supplemented by Lauren McConville’s 1-2 and four points apiece from Watters and experienced captain Aveen Bellew, while Aoibheann McConville and Caoimhin O’Neill each chipped in with single scores.
Former Armagh LGFA Chairperson Owen Reel presented Bellew with the Division Two trophy on the same pitch he had handed it to her captaincy predecessor Lauren McConville almost three years earlier.
Aveen, who was still Donaldson then, has since got married and pushed her way into the Armagh county team, while the very young talents in that Cross side have kept progressing and an even newer generation started breakinging through.
Clarke is a county footballer now while Aislinn McMahon and Faye Fitzpatrick are in the Armagh senior camogie squad and are off to university this autumn having picked up Ulster Schools All Stars along the way.
The dual commitments of so many players in a club which has Senior Championship and now top level league status in both codes can present challenges but these are exciting times for female sport in Crossmaglen, as stalwart Bellew acknowledges.
“There’s a positive vibe about the club and we want to keep pushing forward. Division One will be a real test of where we’re at and this season’s Armagh Senior Championship has shown what fierce competition there is now between the county’s top teams.
“Reigning champions Clann Eireann were knocked out in the quarter-finals and the two semis were fantastically close contests. Dromahill were initially tipped to make a big impact this season and Silverbridge nearly beat Harps last weekend in the league.
“But we can take confidence from winning away against Granemore and Lissummon in tough league games and we were competing well with Shanes in the championship match until Aimee Mackin happened,” admits Aveen, with a shake of the head.
Crossmaglen’s only loss in 2017 didn’t come until the Ulster Intermediate Championship match against Fermanagh champions Newtownbutler in October, but their sole defeat of this short season made more headlines because of one player’s freak scoring spree.
They were leading by two points at the interval of the Buttercrane Senior Championship quarter-final against Shane O’Neills in Camlough before double All Star Aimee Mackin came off the bench and netted an incredible eight goals in the second half.
Captain Bellew was watching helplessly as the carnage began having been sinbinned just before the break but, although the eventual 10-9 to 2-13 defeat was a bit tough to take, what happened shouldn’t define Crossmaglen’s season.
“We were really good in that first half, creating chances and defending effectively as a whole team, and we could have been even further ahead but for a couple of shots from Sarah Armstrong and Alex Clarke skimming over the bar rather than under,” says Bellew.
“Aimee’s lethal, and even her presence can spook people, but I can’t see something like that happening again. It felt like a horrible one-off for us and I wouldn’t want to dwell on it too much. Our defence does a good job generally without getting much credit.
“Forwards like Alex and Lauren will inevitably be talked about but our defence deserves praise, even for how they shackled Killeavy in this last game, especially Grainne Boylan who has scored so heavily for them.”
Armagh LGFA Golden Boot table leader Boylan had hit 5-12 and seven points in Killeavy’s Championship matches against Clan na Gael and Killeavy but was kept pretty quiet here by Bellew’s old comrade Marie ‘Duck’ Luckie.
“I thought Duck did a great job on Boylan and likewise our Under 16 captain Caoimhe Dooley did well marking Bridgetta Quinn, who has been their best forward for a few years and was called up by county while very young.
“Faye Fitzpatrick was on Eimear O’Brien, who is in the Armagh panel now, Aislinn McMahon made her presence count when the game was getting tight and her 15-year-old sister Eimear came on and really drove the defence. She’s a deadly prospect.
“A shout-out too to full back Sinead Watters, lining out two nights before Culloville’s camogie semi-final and Sarah Cairns, who is back with Cross after spells in Australia, England and America. We played underage together and she’s a real laugh.
“Her and Duck have both done nets this season and, against Killeavy, regular forward Sarah Armstrong became our third keeper in five matches. She’d played against Shane with two broken ribs, sustained in the league game at Lissummon.”
This writer has made no secret of his desire to see the highly professional and personable pair of O’Donnell and McMahon taking the Armagh helm at some stage but they are doing a great job where they are and Bellew wouldn’t like to lose them.
“I can’t praise Pete and Maria enough for their commitment to the team over the past four seasons. In spite of the club’s proud history, when they came in we were struggling to field a team, but now ladies football is thriving again in Crossmaglen.
“As you say, the youngest girls in that 2017 team are quite experienced now and we’ve another wave coming through. It’s great to see our various underage teams doing well over the past couple of years.
“I’d like to congratulate the Under 16s on winning their final last week, a level higher than the one last year’s side won. They were really excellent against Armagh Harps and some of them are also part of our Under 14 side which is also in the hunt for silverware.”
Being in Division One should help push Crossmaglen’s emerging talent to keep progressing and the senior squad will also be bolstered at some stage when Aveen’s sister and Ulster Gazette columnist Orla, along with Orlaith Murtagh, return home from Australia.