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'It was like Joe turned on a trip switch for the team' - How Kernan inspired Armagh to glory

In part one of a three-part series on key managerial moments, we look back at Joe Kernan's famous half-time speech which helped Armagh turn the tide in 2002 and secure the All-Ireland

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Nothing like a Joe show: Armagh boss Joe Kernan at the final whistle after his team had stunned Kerry in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Nothing like a Joe show: Armagh boss Joe Kernan at the final whistle after his team had stunned Kerry in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Nothing like a Joe show: Armagh boss Joe Kernan at the final whistle after his team had stunned Kerry in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

The accounts of Joe Kernan's famous half-time speech from the 2002 All-Ireland final vary.

With the passing of time, there are differences in the recollection around a few small-ticket items. But those who have spoken about his address from the bowels of Croke Park agree on one thing - Kernan hit exactly the right note.

At that stage, Armagh's quest for a first All-Ireland title looked to be on shaky ground. They trailed by four points at the break and had seen one of their star forwards, Oisín McConville, miss a penalty.

Against an experienced Kerry side that had won All-Irelands in 1997 and 2000 and contained the likes of Tomás, Marc and Darragh Ó Sé, Dara Ó Cinnéide and, Seamus Moynihan, it felt like it was a long way back.

But Kernan had prepared for just such a moment. He played in the 1977 decider where Armagh lost to Dublin. Accounts differ as to whether he produced a plaque or a medal that the team were given to mark their efforts that year. But they all agree the memento ended in pieces on the ground as Kernan implored his side not to accept second best.

Full-back on the day Justin McNulty remembers the speech as the perfect fuel for the fire.

Welled

"After completing his tactical talk Joe welled up a bit," McNulty explained back in 2017. "Joe just said, 'Lads, I have been in your position, I've played in an All-Ireland final. We were beaten heavily by the Dubs in '77. Do you want to know what we got? Do you want to know what the prize was for coming second best?'

"Joe then held up his plaque that looked like something you'd win at an U-12 blitz. He showed it around and asked, 'Do you want one of these?'

"At which point he said calmly and with massive conviction, 'I'll tell you what you can do with this!'

"And smashed it into smithereens off the walls of the showers, with major dramatic effect.

"He then very calmly and very assuredly said, 'Or, do you want one of these?' Raising an original All-Ireland medal and showing it around.

"It was like Joe turned on a trip switch for the team. Most people thought we were gone after half-time. But we didn't."

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Justin McNulty: ‘Joe smashed his plaque into smithereens against the shower wall – and it had a dramatic effect on us.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Justin McNulty: ‘Joe smashed his plaque into smithereens against the shower wall – and it had a dramatic effect on us.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Justin McNulty: ‘Joe smashed his plaque into smithereens against the shower wall – and it had a dramatic effect on us.’ Photo: Sportsfile

At that stage, there wasn't an All-Ireland medal to be got in the Orchard County. But Kernan had anticipated that he might need something for half-time of the All-Ireland and sent a member of the backroom team out to source one.

Eventually Eamonn Mackle found a Celtic Cross at an auction. And after buying it unbeknownst to anyone else, he put it in safe keeping until Kernan produced it in Croke Park.

"Eamonn Mackle had bought a medal at an auction for Joe. Mackle was part of backroom team. The 'go to guy' who got things done."

"And the 15-minute interval was one of the most inspiring. I had prepared myself mentally for a close finish. I was ready for a dogfight," McNulty added. "However, what Joe did at half-time was like pouring jet fuel onto the fire of my determination. It was the most incredibly powerful, planned and masterfully executed pep talk I ever experienced as a footballer. Especially in the context of the moment we were in."

Justin's brother Enda has since established himself as a leading performance psychologist. And in the book 'Blood, Sweat, Tears & Triumph: Tales from the GAA', he told John Scally how Armagh were transformed.

"I again vividly remember looking around and seeing the body language change immediately (after Kernan's speech)," Enda said.

"Before that, everybody was sitting kind of slumped and suddenly everybody was sitting up as if we were all saying, 'That's not going to be us.' To use a term from sports psychology, we all went up into a "peak state". It was as if we were all saying to each other, 'Jesus boys, we're going to win this.'

"Then Kieran (McGeeney) brought us into a circle and you knew by looking into the boys' eyes that everybody was ready for a battle. There were other games when you'd look into the boys' eyes and you'd see a bit of uncertainty, but there was none at that stage.

"It was total euphoria when we won."

Armagh left Kerry waiting on the pitch for five minutes before they emerged for the second half. And when the action got under way, Armagh looked a different side and produced a second-half tour de force.

McConville atoned for his penalty miss with a brilliantly taken goal while Kerry were held to just three second-half points as Armagh took charge.

Kieran McGeeney made history as the first Armagh man to lift Sam Maguire in front of incredible scenes as Armagh fans poured onto the Croke Park turf. Soon afterwards, details of Kernan's half-time speech leaked out.

There are some discrepancies in the small details. But no one doubts the role Kernan's speech played in delivering Sam to Armagh.

  • EirGrid Manager of The Month Awards will run throughout the 2020 Championship. EirGrid, the State-owned company that develops and manages the flow of electricity across Ireland, has been a proud sponsor of the GAA since 2015.

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