IN FOCUS: Aaron Kernan recalls the ups and downs of his Armagh career

HE’S one of the most decorated players of his generation, but it still rankles with Aaron Kernan that he never managed to get his hands on the Sam Maguire with Armagh.

His list of achievements is fairly bonkers; with Crossmaglen alone he won 18 Armagh Senior Championships, eight provincial titles and three All-Irelands.

He didn’t fare too badly with the county either, winning four provincials and a couple of National Leagues, including the county’s one and only Division One title back in 2005.

Kernan was also a leading protagonist on the Armagh u-21 team that won a historic All-Ireland title in 2004, but even though he’s more medals than you can shake a stick at, he’s not entirely satisfied with his lot.

Kernan joined up with the Armagh senior inter-county panel in late 2003, a formidable group hell-bent on reaching the absolute ceiling of their potential. They’d won the All-Ireland title in 2002 and they wanted more but try as they might, it never happened. One All-Ireland would be their lot; their adversaries Tyrone and Kerry would be rather more fortunate in that respect.

According to Kernan, the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone was the one that got away, the big sliding doors moment. Two points up with five minutes on the clock, we all know what happened next and to say it would be a sore point for Kernan would be a glib understatement.

But anyway, a bit of background. Kernan grew up as the second oldest of five brothers in Crossmaglen. Four would go on to represent Armagh at senior county level – Tony, Paul and Stephen the others – while we hardly need to say much about their famous father Joe, a giant of Crossmaglen, Armagh and Ulster GAA.

While stardom is hard-earned, it certainly proved a useful formative environment for Kernan, as he acknowledges.

“My earliest memories of the GAA world beyond kicking a ball about would be of the late eighties. My dad had just finished up playing and he went straight into coaching.

“He got involved with Armagh as a coach with a former teammate of his, Paddy Moriarty. I can vividly remember tagging along with him to training sessions and getting to know all the players at that time. I remember all the different games, the training venues, there were a lot of forest runs.

“I was a bit of a sponge really, taking in all that was happening, getting to know the players. The seeds were sown from an early age that this was cool, something to aspire to and to aim towards.”

The 2002 All-Ireland came too soon for Kernan, but he still harbours very special memories of that time, especially given his very obvious family connection.

“The hype and the euphoria that came from winning the All-Ireland was amazing. Obviously it was a very special time especially with my dad as manager, and the amount of times I woke up with Sam sitting on the kitchen table.

“We were so fortunate to have someone involved with what’s the highlight of Armagh GAA history.

“2003 couldn’t have been any more contrasting, ultimately coming up short of winning back-to-back All-Irelands. It was a completely different emotion in the City West. You went from 2002 being one of the biggest carnivals you’ve ever seen to being at one of the biggest live-wakes in 2003 but that’s the nature of sport.”

Kernan was a leading figure on the Armagh u-21 team that won the All-Ireland title with a two-point victory over Mayo, and confidence was in high supply after they got the better of Tyrone earlier in the campaign. It remains the only All-Ireland u-21 title success in the county’s history.

“To be honest we knew we’d a decent team. We’d lost to Tyrone in the first round of the Minor Championship in 2001 and we were missing our main defender at that stage, Ciaran McKeever.

“We still only lost by a point and Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland, so when it came to u-21 level we knew we’d a decent team.

“We ended up beating Tyrone after extra-time in Dungannon in the Ulster semi-final and we got a serious boost from that.

“I remember between schools and county football, Armagh could never get the better of Tyrone, so even personally I took confidence from beating a team of that ability.

“They had Sean Cavanagh playing midfield when we came up against them at u-21 level, he was the Young Footballer of the Year and had won an All-Ireland, so it was a huge boost to beat them and we never really looked back. It acted as a springboard for a lot of our team, a lot ended up playing senior intercounty in the years following.”

Winning an All-Ireland u-21 title was one thing, making a name for himself on an established Armagh senior team was quite another. He was content enough to keep his head down at the start but it wasn’t long before he was handed a spot in the half-back line and he was a nailed-on starter for the rest of his career.

“I was like a sheep when I came in, I had my head down and my mouth shut, I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself.

“I was coming into an Armagh team that had won an All-Ireland and a few Ulster titles. There’s a huge amount of quality and experience so you’re keeping your head down and trying to earn respect by your actions rather than anything you could say.”

He continued: “I was nervous and probably a bit afraid of making mistakes but as time went on I got used to it and got up to speed.

“You can train as much as you like at club level but it was a huge step up going into that team. In hindsight though I felt I adapted fairly quickly. It probably took about 12 or 18 months but I felt once I got the opportunity I settled in quickly and my confidence grew with the more game-time I got.”

That Armagh team was stuffed with big personalities that demanded only the very highest standards from themselves and everyone else. Any drop-off in standards was going to be called out.

“Clearly ‘Geezer’ (Kieran McGeeney) was to the forefront as he was captain but you had an awful lot of like-minded personalities. The likes of Paul McGrane, (Diarmaid) Marsden, Enda McNulty were all similar characters.

“Then we’d have an awful lot of other leads who had different personalities but still set seriously high standards when they stepped onto the field, the likes of Oisin McConville, Stevie McDonnell, Ronan Clarke, the McEntees (John and Tony), (Francie) Bellew and Paul Hearty.

“They didn’t talk as much, they wouldn’t have been ones for going and having a chat with you, but they set their own standards in how they played and trained and left it at that.

“Joe being my dad, he didn’t need to say an awful lot, he’d pull me up at home if he needed to, but the standards were so high among the players themselves that if you drifted out of line at all at training you’d have been pulled up on it in 15 minutes.”

Armagh won a hell of a lot more than they lost in those years – three Ulster titles in-a-row between 2004 and 2006 speaks for itself – but there remains a nagging sense of underachievement at national level. The closest Kernan came on a personal level was in 2005, when they came up against their old foes Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final, a day where he was tasked with marking a certain Brian McGuigan.

“There was a certain amount of pressure going into the game, Brian had caused us so much trouble in the years previous, he was such a smart, intelligent player.

“He had those wee probing passes and I knew if he was able to play his game, the ball would be going into (Owen) Mulligan, (Stevie) O’Neill and (Peter) Canavan.

“I was just so wary but I suppose I also enjoyed the responsibility of making someone of that calibre. I look back fondly knowing I had the opportunity to mark someone who was that good in a game of that magnitude.

“Those were the boys I enjoyed marking the most, I loved getting the opportunity to really test myself against the best in the business.”

But that aside, it remains the biggest regret of Kernan’s career that they didn’t push for home in one of the all-time classics, relinquishing a two-point lead coming down the stretch.

Asked if he’s ever re-watched the game, he said: “Covid was the grimmest time and it was the only time I’ve ever watched it back, I think BBC did a show on it.

“Watching it back I felt the same emotions all over again. You think you have the job done but know the absolute horror ending to this movie is only a short step away.

“As soon as Canavan stepped over the ball for the winning free, I remember my heart just sank. I remember my heart was racing and my stomach was churning because you knew what the outcome was going to be. It’s unfortunately still very clear in the memory.”

By every other metric, Kernan’s playing career is one big success story after another. He won three All-Irelands with his club Crossmaglen, but he says that still doesn’t ‘compensate’ as such for his failure to land the big one with Armagh.

“I wouldn’t change the three All-Irelands I won with Crossmaglen for the world but it still doesn’t compensate.

“The beauty of representing your club and county is that you have the opportunity to win with both. Winning All-Irelands with my club are the most cherished memories I have but I’d have absolutely loved to have done the same thing with Armagh.

“Ultimately that’s why 2005 is so fresh in the memory – it’s something I always wanted to do and Armagh had won the All-Ireland just a few years prior so that’s the environment I was living in.

“I don’t look back on my inter-county career and think it was a complete failure, I’m not saying that at all, but as a county we had genuine and real ambitions of becoming All-Ireland champions, so not to have done that at any stage over the 11 years is massively disappointing.”

Kernan hung up the boots with Armagh in October 2014 and while he looks back on his intercounty career with pride, there’s a sense of disappointment that they slipped down the pecking order despite having a strong pool of players.

“I genuinely felt we still had the players to pick up silverware in the latter half of my career. Hand on heart I knew we probably weren’t at All-Ireland level but I definitely felt we should’ve won more Ulsters.

“I remember we beat Donegal well in Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland Qualifiers in 2010 and nobody in their right mind would’ve put money on them winning Ulster the next year let alone an All-Ireland two years later. It goes to show that anything can happen when you’ve the right people overseeing things and the buy-in from players.

“We still had Stevie McDonnell, Paul Hearty, Andy Mallon and Ciaran McKeever and there was a conveyor belt of good young players. We’d won the All-Ireland u-21 in 2004, an Ulster Minor in 2005, an Ulster u-21 in 2007 and an All-Ireland Minor title in 2009. So there’s no point in saying otherwise, we underachieved, but these things happen and for one reason or another we didn’t achieve the success we’d all envisioned. You get your shot at it and it goes by quickly, and I still look back with a huge sense of pride that I got the opportunity to represent my county for the 11 years that I did.”

Remarkably, Kernan continued to represent his club Crossmaglen for another decade before deciding late last year that the time was right to hang up the boots for the final time. It’s a decision that had to be made.

“There’s no regrets at all, I know personally and for the senior team, you know when the time is right to move on.

“I wasn’t under any circumstances ever going to overstay my welcome, if you’re not able to deliver to the level I fully expect of myself never mind anybody else, then there’s no point. I’m back in and helping out the club at underage coaching and doing what everybody else has done before me.

“You get so much out of it and you have to get back into doing whatever I can to bring along the next generation to see if they could even achieve half of what I was so fortunate to be part of. I wouldn’t change my experiences with the club for the world and I’ve love for them to sample even a small bit of that.”

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