Kernan fears end is nigh for Armagh stars
JOE KERNAN has given the strongest possible hint yet that his Armagh team could lose a number of key players to retirement at the end of this season.
And he has urged them to go out on a high and be remembered for the right reasons in the months ahead.
The Armagh manager, who has led the county to unprecedented glory over the last three seasons, senses this year may be a last hurrah for some of his field generals.
Armagh will be on a bookies shortlist of three with Kerry and Tyrone for All-Ireland glory this year, but he fears his team's longevity is not guaranteed.
Household names like captain Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane, Diarmuid Marsden - who is currently mulling over his future, but is expected to return - and even Oisín McConville, who is troubled by persistent back injury, could all decide to jump ship together when the 2005 season winds up.
"I think there are a few players on our panel for whom it probably will be their last year," admitted Kernan yesterday. "They have served their county well and it will be sad to see anyone go, but that is just a fact of life.
"People can forget about you very, very quickly. The only way you can redeem yourself is by performing again and I would hate to think that if a few were to quit at the end of this year that they would be remembered for two bad performances - one last year, one this year. That is the challenge," said Kernan.
"I want these boys to go out on a high if they do decide to step down at the end of the year and to me there is no reason why they can't," he said.
That sense of 'last hurrah' should not be mistaken for a meltdown in Armagh football. Having climbed to Gaelic football's plateau and stayed in its vicinity, Kernan insists they are in no hurry to disperse. The future could still be very much tinted with orange.
"I think our panel is as strong now if not stronger than it has ever been," he enthuses. "There are a whole lot of young players coming through, which is something to look forward to. We have a good underage structure in Armagh and I think in a year or two we'll be talking about new players."
A rich source of new blood is likely to be last year's under-21 side which produced some memorable spells of football to win the All-Ireland title. Among the star performers were Ciarán McKeever, Andy and Brian Mallon, the highly-promising Gareth Swift and Kernan's own sons, Aaron and Stephen.
"Some of these young boys that have come in have done very well. A lot of this is about attitude and the attitude of some of these boys is second to none. There are a few 'McGeeney attitudes' among these boys and to me than can only be good for the squad, not just for this year but for the next few years. These boys want to be winners."
The defeat to Fermanagh still bites hard, and as the new season looms Kernan admits that, looking back, things weren't as right as they seemed.
"Sometimes you only find out things when a game is over. Everyone got carried away with our performance against Donegal in the Ulster final. After the match, I told them we had set ourselves up for the biggest fall of our lives.
"We didn't know who we were playing, but that's the way it happened. We haven't really spoken about it since. There will be a time and a place for that. At the moment our priority is surviving in the league and maybe making a semi-final."
Armagh will be without their seven Crossmaglen Rangers players, as well as Paddy McKeever (holidays) and Diarmuid Marsden, who has yet to decide on his future, for the trip to Wexford on Sunday.
"Diarmuid is taking a well-earned break," commented Kernan. "I'll be going down to his house some evening for tea and biscuits and hopefully I'll leave a happy man.
"He wanted a while longer, which we'll give him because he owes nothing. I'd like to think that there is another year in him and I think for himself in years to come he would be disappointed if he didn't give it one more go."
McGeeney is available, however, after making his return as a substitute against Offaly last weekend.
The captain has spent the last three months in New Zealand, but Kernan reports that he is in good shape and has worked hard at his conditioning.