Trillick next for Anthony Cunningham after his Crossmaglen side jump 'first hurdle'

Anthony Cunningham in action for Crossmaglen in 2000
Anthony Cunningham's playing career with Crossmaglen included winning 10 Armagh senior medals and captaining the club to All-Ireland glory in 2000

Anthony Cunningham knew full well what the minimum expectation was when he agreed to become Crossmaglen manager last November.

And while winning the Armagh Football title is the bottom line, sometimes even that isn't enough to keep you in a job.

Stephen Kernan guided the Rangers outfit to their 46th Armagh title last October but within a month had departed from the role after the team's defeat by Ballybay in the preliminary round of the Ulster Club Championship.

"There's pressure to deliver a county championship and I did it in the first year but it's good pressure," said new boss Cunningham of the club's retention of the Gerry Fagan Cup which set up Saturday evening's Ulster Club quarter-final against Trillick at Healy Park.

As a player, Cunningham knew all about securing county titles. He won 10 of them during Crossmaglen's run of 13 straight wins in Armagh between 1996 and 2008.

That period of astonishing Rangers success saw him line out in four successful Ulster Club campaigns in addition to helping them clinch three All-Ireland titles, which included him captaining the side to provincial and Andy Merrigan Cup triumphs in 2000.

'We had to stop the majors at the back'

And while Crossmaglen by their exalted standards, have had a relatively fallow recent period with their last All-Ireland and provincial titles coming in 2012 and 2015, it's instructive to note that the club has still won 23 out of the last 28 Armagh Championships.

"County championships are the first hurdle you have to jump. That was 47 for us. It wasn't easy," said Cunningham of an Armagh campaign which culminated with a facile-looking 2-16 to 1-7 final win over Clan na Gael, as Cross were able to negate the threat of Stefan Campbell.

In surveying Crossmaglen's recent seasons which had included the 2020 and 2021 Armagh Final defeats by Maghery and Clann Eireann, Cunningham pinpointed the concession of goals as the main concern.

"We took a look back over the past four or five years and the teams that were successful against Cross were the teams that scored goals.

"Maghery beat us in a county championship with four goals. Clann Eireann scored two goals. Ballybay scored two goals against us so we came in with the idea that if we could stop the majors at the back, we'd had a good chance of winning football matches.

"Thankfully that has happened. We haven't changed it that much because we were top scorers in the league and top scorers in the championship so we'd like to think we got the blend right."

Captain Jamie Clarke is presented with the Gerry Fagan Cup after Crossmaglen's Armagh Final win over Clan na Gael
Cunningham admits Jamie Clarke is "not a big talker" but says he "leads by example"

Whatever about the tactical set-up of the team, Cunningham's most eye-catching decision was making the free-spirited renaissance man Jamie Clarke his skipper.

The wonderfully gifted Clarke has stepped away from club and county for periods during his football career to pursue other interests, avenues and locations but Cunningham has only praise for how the forward has skippered the team in 2023.

"Jamie Clarke has been excellent for me. I can count on one hand the number of gym sessions and training sessions that kid has missed for me," adds the Crossmaglen boss.

"Jamie is not a big talker in the changing room but you don't have to be that in the modern game. Go out and perform and lead by example and that's what he does for us."

Cunningham has 'empathy and understanding'

For his part, Clarke says he's loving the "fresh mindset and new ways of coaching".

"It's a young team and there are different dynamics within the team, different players," says Clarke, who despite being 34 now will remain forever young for many of us.

"Anthony has that empathy and understanding to know who needs the clip across the ear and who needs the arm around the shoulder.

"The most important thing was to enjoy it. It's a new group and I love being around the boys.

"There's a brilliant atmosphere in the changing room. It's very youthful. It's a bit of a throwback when you look back to the Oisin's [McConville] era. The craic is there in the changing room."

Seanie O'Donnell celebrates during Trillick's Tyrone Final win over Errigal Ciaran
Seanie O'Donnell is among several Trillick players who impressed Cunningham in the Tyrone Final

As for Saturday evening's contest in Omagh, both Clarke and Cunningham profess to have been hugely impressed by Trillick's display in their deserved Tyrone Final win over a strongly fancied Errigal Ciaran side.

"After five or 10 minutes, Trillick looked very well set up. You could see it was going to be very difficult for Errigal to break them down," says Clarke.

"They had the Canavans [Darragh and Ruairi] well marshalled and the key men picked out. They looked very strong, very fit and well set up at the back. We know all too well about going to Omagh and how difficult it will be."

Cunningham noted the outstanding marking job Daniel Donnelly performed on Darragh Canavan in the Tyrone Final and won't be surprised to see Trillick delegating him to mark Clarke on Saturday night.

"There's no doubt Jamie is going to get tagged. It's the modern game. You have to hammer the hammer and that's what they will do.

"We also have a job to do. They have three or four main men as well. Richie [Donnelly], Lee [Brennan], young [Seanie] O'Donnell, [James] Garrity…..huge players but that's the level we're at now."

And with the likes of Rian O'Neill, Oisin O'Neill, Cian McConville, Rory Brennan and Ciaran Daly also on the field, it has the makings of quite some contest.