BALLYMACNAB attacker Jack Grugan has never had to look too far over his shoulder to see where Crossmaglen defender James Morgan is.
They shared a classroom and changing room at St Mary’s College in Belfast and had many marking duels in club games and at Armagh training when, as Grugan admits, “friendships went out the window for that hour and a half.”
Now their lives are intertwined once again. Grugan started a new teaching job last year at St Mary’s College in Dundalk and who should walk in the door a few months ago? Morgan, of course.
In many ways the pair are the poster boys of their respective teams as they prepare for Sunday’s county final, although Morgan will have to watch on from the sidelines due to injury.
He was the link-man between the squads that dominated before and after the millennium, your McEntees, McConvilles and Bellews, and the new breed of the O’Neill brothers and young Cian McConville who will hope to keep Crossmaglen at the top of the pile in Armagh.
Grugan, meanwhile, is the man that had been crucial to Ballymacnab’s progression from also-rans to back-to-back county finalists.
He scored a goal in each of their first five games in this year’s championship, and only the butt of the post prevented him from making it six from six in the semi-final win over Granemore.
“It’s my second year here and James is only in there in September,” Grugan explained.
“There has been no physical contact yet, just a bit of verbals!
“Me and James were in the same class in college so we have spent a lot of time together and we’re quite good friends away from football.
“Obviously on the pitch James, he’s a top quality defender. I have had the pleasure of being marked by him a few times and it’s safe to say the friendship goes out the window. That’s fair enough too, that’s football.”
This will be the third final meeting between the clubs, the first of those coming in 2011 when the Rangers romped home on a 2-22 to 0-3 scoreline.
It was a much different story last year with Bernie Murray’s side leading for two thirds of the contest before Cross hit the purplest of patches to earn a 0-24 to 1-15 win.
Grugan is confident that they have continued to develop and will be in an even stronger position this Sunday.
“This is my ninth season playing senior football and it really has been a building process.
“It has taken a few bad defeats here and there, semi-final losses and things like that.
“In 2011 we made the final against Cross and they beat us quite well. I was only 16 back then and I didn’t come on.
“That was too early for us. We were actually talking about it after the Granemore game there. In 2011 we beat Clan na Gael in the quarter-final and our neighbours Granemore in the semis.
“This year we have had to play six games to get to the final so it’s a much different competition than it was back then.
“The whole professionalism of the club and this group of players has been stepped up massively and everyone has fully bought in.
“Strength and conditioning, the boys are never found wanting and are always in the gym.
“We had a few reserve teams winning Armagh Championships and at the time you were maybe thinking ‘ah, this is good’ but if you go into that team now, five of the lads not playing senior football back then are now starting.
“You just have to look at Ciaran Connolly who was our best player against Granemore in the semi-final. Ciaran couldn’t get on a few years ago and was starting full-back for the reserves. There he is now as your vice-captain and playing some fantastic football.
“It has taken quite a few years to build to where we want to be and hopefully we can peak at the right time.”
This will be the second meeting between the sides in this year’s competition, and the first was a reminder of the road that still need to be travelled.
In the blink of an eye Ballymacnab were 1-7 to 0-0 down and although they recovered to add some respectability to the scoreboard, it was a tough afternoon’s work at St Oliver Plunkett Park.
“There is no point turning up if we don’t believe we can go on and win it,” Grugan added. “That’s why we are here, that’s why we’re working so hard and make those sacrifices.
“You push yourself to the limit and try and get into the best shape you can for days like these.
“Yes we do believe we can win it but at the same time we are under absolutely no illusions about the challenge Crossmaglen present.
“The first 10 minutes of the group game this year, I remember thinking ‘Jesus, how we stop this?’
“We managed to get a handle on things around the half-time mark but then another few soft goals killed the game.
“There was a lot of learning from that day. I think our attitude and how we looked at certain aspects of our game changed. The performances have definitely changed for the better.”