All-Ireland Junior Camogie Final
As far as starts went, it was one of the greatest opening days of the League for Antrim hurling.
The reigning National League champions Galway came to Casement Park in mid-February 2006 and towards the end of a tense contest, the redoubtable Johnny McIntosh plundered a goal to keep all League points in Belfast.
For Jim McKernan, it was some thrill on his first day as manager of the team he also played for.
And they were only really getting going. The following week, they easily saw off Laois away from home by eight points.
In Round Three, they brought Tipperary all the way to Cushendall and finished just four points short in a low-scoring game. A fortnight afterwards, Kilkenny beat them in Nowlan Park by just two points.
Croke Park glory would follow with the Christy Ring Cup.
2007 was dicey and they were relegated from the top flight, but were subsequently restored after a competition restructure over the winter.
But at the end of that season, McKernan found out that he had lost his job as manager through a journalist.
It’s 15 years ago now. He’s still coaching, still managing, and bringing another team to Croke Park tomorrow when his Armagh camogs take on Antrim in the first of a triple-header of All-Ireland Camogie Finals in Croke Park.
And yet he admitted to still being sore at the manner of his undignified sacking by Antrim.
“It was a disgrace,” he said.
“It was horrible, first of all. Things were behind us, the county were on an up, we had lifted our first title in I don’t know how long.
“There was good youth behind us. At that stage, there was a sense in the air that we were going to get back up to where we had been. But that was all kicked up in the air.
“The good thing about it now is that they have a good group of players who are going in the right direction. They seem to be getting structures right.”
It didn’t sour his love for hurling. He spent an enjoyable spell with Down and, last year, he led the Antrim camogs to the All-Ireland Intermediate title.
At all times, he has had former All-Star hurler Paul ‘Humpy’ McKillan there beside him as coach.
“It opened up our eyes to our own expectations, and that’s why we went to Down and were beaten in a Final there. Basically this is my fifth Final as a manager and I have won two. Hopefully I will win more than I lose,” he laughed.
What experience has taught him is what others have realised to their delight; coaching females is every bit — and perhaps maybe even more — enjoyable than the microscope you can be held under over a male team.
“They all have their own personal desires and expectations and one strong element of the girls is that they listen to you. They want to know how to improve. In the boy’s side of things, it can be, ‘It’s all about me’,” McKernan explained.
“But this is a very good group to work with. The thing about Armagh is that they are dual clubs and we only got that sorted out last year in Antrim.”
He continued: “They all want to do the same and you cannot serve two Gods.
“There was a lot of club activity and a lot of players who were out five times a week. It was no good to anybody.
“But in relation to teams, the progress is as high in Armagh as any team I have been involved in.”
He readily admits to not worrying too much about the League.
Having been beaten in the Junior Final last year by Wexford, they wanted to get back to Croke Park, and so they started off training once a week with a plan to peak in July and August.
And they also had to take care of the various commitments of the players.
“Gaelic football is No.1 in Armagh, Ladies’ Gaelic football No.2, hurling is No.3 and the camogie is in the basement,” said McKernan.
“That has changed since the Championship came and the Armagh county board have let us into the Athletic Grounds a lot more and we are using that as our training facilities.
“It’s been a lot better and has come at the right time, we have good people helping us out, so that’s a good thing.”
Last year when he finished with Antrim, he thought he would take significant time out for himself. And then came a call from Armagh chairperson Sally Rafferty. She was persistent, and persuasive.
Eventually, McKernan caved in. And now he finds himself in Croke Park, against a team wearing saffron.
“You are an Antrim man, but at the end of the day you have a job to do and we are now in the Armagh family. We are in it,” he said.
“We win, we lose, we are together and there is an admiration for the team and a real collectiveness there.
“So we all know our tasks, from myself to the physio, to the hurley carrier. We all know what we are doing on Sunday.”
Still all over the details.