Wednesday 28 September 2016

Clean break from county duty fuels Kernan's hunger for club glory

Veteran defender confident Crossmaglen can 'keep winning titles for years' ahead of Scotstown clash

Declan Bogue

Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30

Aaron Kernan
Aaron Kernan

Last Saturday, we spotted him by his upright running style, acquired by many hours of dedicated core work that Aaron Kernan slaved over in the converted garage at the family homeplace.

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Something amiss though. he was wearing the fluorescent yellow jersey of the team 'runner', scampering on to deliver instructions to the Ireland players against Australia.

He should have been in green, actually playing. And he should still be in the orange of Armagh.

Still, the 32-year-old has an Ulster club final to look forward to against Scotstown tomorrow.

Changing circumstances meant Kernan only made it to three Armagh games in his first year of retirement.

"The funny thing is that when you quit playing county football, you think you will have a load of spare time but you don't. I think that probably helped in distancing yourself from the whole thing," he explains.

"If you are sitting there watching them all the time, it can seep back into you what you are missing and make you want to get out there again and help. But I think once you are finished, you are finished and you should accept it."

Kernan (right) doesn't fall in line with the wisdom that there has been too much expected of the Armagh players since the appointment of Kieran McGeeney.

"I think the players would have expected more from themselves," he says of a season that promised much with promotion, but delivered a poor summer.

"We had showed really well last year, had a good pattern of play going, good levels of confidence growing in boys like Kevin Dyas, Stefan Campbell, Aidan Forker and Aaron Findon - those boys really emerged.

"Everyone knew they had the talent but they showed it consistently that summer to get us to the All-Ireland quarter-final and you were hoping that they were going to kick on this year. But it did not happen for one reason or another."

A consolation for Armagh's Crossmaglen contingent has always been the likelihood of silverware at club level.

Cross have a phenomenally strong club identity , with joint-managers John McEntee and Oisín McConville following a line of great players progressing to the sideline.

To Kernan, it means that no matter who is in the centre of the dressing-room floor talking before games, they never have to fake it.

"You can see it every time they open their mouth how much it means to them. They are so enthusiastic and driven you can't but be affected," he says.

"They are Cross men through and through, they have done it all before, they have the experience, the quality - these are boys the players idolised when they were kids."

When the present group of Cross players were coming up and looking at their heroes, undoubtedly some players grew into their roles.

Take Johnny Hanratty for example - the modern-day McEntee in the middle. Aidan Rushe has the potential to develop into a Francie Bellew.

But the returning Jamie Clarke has no mould to fit into. He is most unlike any other player that preceded him in black and amber. That unorthodox quality means that although he might often go out into the world in search of enlightenment, he is always welcomed back with open arms.

"Jamie is a sort of free spirit," Kernan says. "He enjoys travelling but now he is back and he is very much part of the management's plans. We have all grown up together and have a great relationship."

They haven't needed Clarke, but it's some weapon to have pushing for a place in the Ulster final. The two-year gap that Crossmaglen experienced without featuring in the provincial final was the longest stretch going back to 2004.

Kernan answers with brutal simplicity as to the reasons for that, citing their defeats against Kilcoo in 2013 and Omagh last year, and the red cards picked up in both defeats.

"A large proportion of what happened was self-inflicted," he says.

At 32, retirement might look attractive from time to time, but Cross have a way of retaining and preserving their veterans. Take Paul Hearty of the present team, or how they managed Bellew, McEntee, John Donaldson, McConville and Cathal Short as they began to wind down their careers.

Back when this journey was in its infancy, Short himself described how the club were planning long-term, saying in 2000 ahead of their All-Ireland final win over Na Fianna of Dublin: "I really can't see this team being satisfied and just disbanding. I dunno what it is - probably just that it's not hard to put in the effort when you are winning."

Kernan echoes that sentiment, 15 years on.

"We have a lot of good young players coming through and they are being set the right example and we are all conscious of setting that example so that they can continue it on for future generations," he says.

"I don't see why it should ever stop if you put in the right time and effort. The structures are there in the club, and if we can get the boys to have the same hunger as the men that have gone before us then there is no reason why they can't go on to win titles for years to come."

It's enough to make other clubs want to fold up their tents.

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