Friday 15 December 2017

Joe Kernan: Team secrets being leaked and my son ignored on the pitch...

It was the greatest day in Armagh football history, an occasion which will be recalled, celebrated and commemorated for ever more. Sam Maguire, the Holy Grail for every kid who ever put on a pair of football boots, was in Armagh hands after decades of gloom, doom and misery.

I wanted time to stand still so that the perfection of it all could remain in place, but that was impossible. Even before we had returned home to Armagh I had a hunch that things would never be the same after 5.0 on the evening of Sunday, September 22, 2002.

A few hours later, as the team bus was winding its way up the long avenue leading to the Citywest Hotel, I turned to Eamonn Mackle and said: "Amazing feeling, isn't it? But, do you know what? I can't help wondering if we will be able to control the monster that's after being created."

He looked at me in surprise.

"What do you mean? What sort of monster?"

"Well, it's like this. Up until today, nobody in Armagh knew what it was like to win the All-Ireland. It's completely different now. From today on, there won't be a person in Armagh -- young or old -- who doesn't become an expert on how to win All-Irelands and everything that goes with them! Mark my words ... that's certain to happen and it won't be easy to deal with."

Eamonn paused for a second, as if considering what I'd said, but quickly decided this was no time for anything but celebration.

"Let's get in here and enjoy the night and the next few weeks and let the future look after itself," he said.

He was right, of course. That was a night to party and party we did.

Winning a first All-Ireland title changes the dynamic in a county and, while we managed to keep things under reasonable control, it was far from easy. By the time we reached the end of 2006, things had changed in a way I never thought possible.

By then, information was leaking from our camp as if through a sieve. Details of things we were doing in training were being passed on to others outside the county. We had always prided ourselves on keeping a tight ship, but now all had changed.

All my managerial life with Crossmaglen and Armagh had been based on keeping things tight within the group. What happens in camp stays in camp. That's easy enough to achieve when things are going well, but it tends to loosen once the cracks begin to appear.

In 2006, Armagh were heading into a period of transition, but the basics were solid. There was a strong core who were still young enough to continue into a new phase, while the U-21s had won the 2004 All-Ireland title in what was another first for the county.

As for me, my appetite was as strong as ever, although certain things were going on in the background that were making things a bit tricky. It was at that stage I began to fully realise just how difficult it was becoming for me to manage a county squad in which my own sons were involved.


Aaron and Stephen had both been on the U-21 All-Ireland-winning team in 2004 and made their senior championship debuts a year later. Two years later, with two other sons, Tony and Paul, also pressing for places, it was becoming very difficult to balance things. Whatever a manager does in that situation, he's in trouble. Play your own sons and you'll be accused of favouring them; don't play them and they'll want to know why they're not being given the same chance as everybody else.

Aaron made the No 5 jersey his own from 2005 onwards, but it was much tougher for Stephen. The truth is that I was probably harder on him than anybody else in the squad, but it was twice as difficult for him watching his dad doing something he knew wasn't quite right. As for me, I regret to this day replacing him against Fermanagh in the 2006 Ulster semi-final replay.

He didn't deserve to be taken off but, conscious of the risk of being accused of favouring my own, I watched his game in an overly critical way. His mistakes were magnified whereas others got away with theirs. Far from giving him an easy ride, I was too tough on him.

I got a call from another county manager after the Fermanagh game telling me that I had been wrong to take Stephen off.

In terms of off-pitch dealings, I treated my lads like everybody else on the panel. I didn't ask them what was being said by other players when I wasn't around and they didn't tell me. I was the manager, they were players and I wanted a clear demarcation line.

As far as I was concerned, the lads were involved because they were good enough. For some, that's okay while things are going well but the day fortunes begin to change is the day the gossip starts.

Nobody said it directly to me but, eventually, I got the distinct feeling that a few of the lads on the panel didn't like the fact that two Kernans were on the team. Stephen's presence would have been the main issue.

It pains me to say it but I'm convinced there were occasions when colleagues didn't pass to him, not because he was in a bad position but because there was certain resentment towards him being on the team. We needed a centre-forward who would spray the ball around after John McEntee retired and, as far as I was concerned, Stephen was the best man for the job.

Unfortunately, a few on the team obviously didn't agree. There were some occasions when I wondered what the hell was going on. Stephen would be free and waiting for a pass but the ball would go elsewhere or be given away. At first, I put it down to a lack of vision but when it happened on a regular basis, I began to wonder.

It was clear that he wasn't getting as much ball as he should. I brought it up in a general sort of way, once or twice, emphasising the need to be more aware of men in space. That's the sort of thing you tell six-year-olds but it was as much as I could do. After all, I could hardly say, "Lads, will you cut out the messing and pass to our Stephen".

In my last game as manager, against Derry in the 2007 qualifiers, there were at least three occasions when Stephen was free inside the Derry full-back line, but the ball wasn't played to him.

The fact that this sort of situation arose at all suggested that the team ethic was disintegrating. Once that started happening, I knew my days in Armagh were numbered. Apart from anything else, it wasn't fair on my own sons and with the younger boys also trying to make the breakthrough, it was only going to get worse.

I knew it would be a problem much earlier. After the defeat by Kerry in the 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final, I met with Paul (Grimley) and John (McCloskey) in the City Hotel, Armagh. We needed a change and I felt it was my time to go. In my opinion, Paul was the next man for the job. We had a good chat at the meeting and I decided to speak to the county board about Paul taking over and me stepping down.

However, a few days later I was disappointed to learn from reading the paper that Paul was stepping down from Armagh. Later in the day, I heard on the grapevine that he was joining Cavan. I still hadn't talked to the county board. I was disappointed with the turn of events which left me with no option but to stay on for another year. I also had to look for a new assistant.

Several of the players who had been on the great adventure, including Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane, Enda McNulty, Steven McDonnell and Oisin McConville, were all set to carry on into 2007, so I decided to stick with it.

It would be easy to be wise in hindsight and say I stayed too long but, when you're in the middle of something with so many people who have done so much for so long, it's difficult to walk away.

Whatever about staying for a season too long, my real regret was that the scene had changed so much by the end of 2006.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport