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Missed kick is costly for Kernan but he is back for Crossmaglen

By Declan Bogue

Against Roscommon in Hyde Park in the qualifiers, Armagh's Tony Kernan stood over a free kick from the ground, tight to the touchline. It was one of Sky's first live games and they captured the moment in glorious slow-motion.

The grass was a little bit too long, the pitch was absorbing a downpour. The ball left Kernan's boot and followed a huge arc to bend over the bar.

Fast forward to last weekend and Kernan is standing over a free-kick in injury time, a point down to Donegal. In the first half he had nailed a point from play on the 45 metres line. This time the breeze was behind him, kicking towards Hill 16. He took it out of his hands.

Sitting in a coffee shop five days later, Kernan lets us into his mind at the time.

"I have always hit my free kicks off the ground and when I practised it before the games against Meath and Donegal and I wasn't striking it overly well. I thought it was a better option to hit it with a bit of a breeze into Hill 16.

"Do I regret not putting it on the ground? Yeah. Maybe if I put it on the ground I might have nailed it, but you can't take it back."

The ball spun to the right and wide. Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan tried to find Neil Gallagher with the kickout but it found touch. Patrick McBrearty, just after being withdrawn, gave the ball a boot. Referee Joe McQuillan awarded a free and brought it forward. Still outside the 45, this time with a cruel angle, Kernan put it on the floor, kicked it cleanly, but not far enough.

Freetaker. Tough gig. Takes a strong man.

Kernan recalls watching Maurice Fitzgerald and his beautiful kicking as he grew up. That was the job for him. Other kids wanted to be captain, he was never fussed on that, but being the freetaker was a challenge. After all, his idol, Oisín McConville, was the man for Crossmaglen and Armagh. What else would a Cross lad aspire to be?

"I wanted more responsibility than just being a normal player on the pitch. I worked to become the best freetaker in Crossmaglen and then to be the best in Armagh," he recounts.

"You have to trust in your technique and I probably doubted it. I should have put the kick on the ground, I didn't do it. We lost the game and we have to move on."

All the same, it was some year for Kernan and Armagh. It was said by commentators that his work as a surveyor for Lambert Smith Hampton meant he spent a lot of time in England.

He was looking after shopping centres in Dunedin, Doncaster and London. When needed over there for a meeting he would fly over, but he never missed a single training session or match with Armagh.

After starting every league game and finishing as top scorer with 2-17 (ten pointed frees), he was dropped to the bench for the Championship opener against Cavan.

He never made any appearance in the next game against Monaghan, but secured a starting place in the replay, hit 0-7 and established himself as a certainty, producing the kind of form that will likely result in an All-Star nomination.

Some of that is down to Kernan's own character, but also the resolution that the Armagh group made among themselves to be brutally honest with each other from the moment Kieran McGeeney joined up.

"We started looking at ourselves," says Kernan.

"We were a lot more honest with each other and we demanded a lot more of ourselves. We tried to bring in a culture to something similar to what we had in Crossmaglen. We tried to replicate that culture with Armagh."

It sounds rather like that famous meeting in Enfield among the Irish rugby team when the attitude of Munster players while on Ireland duty was questioned.

A broad comparison could be made in this regard, possibly borne of frustration more than anything else of why Armagh cannot do what Crossmaglen do.

"There are certain bits of Crossmaglen that works with Armagh," he answers.

"Not all of it would work with Armagh, but quite a bit of it does. Although we don't have any silverware to show for it, there is a lot of the pride back in the Armagh jersey, which was probably my main goal at the start of the year."

He also credits a maturing as a player, learning to be more patient with the ball rather than forcing a pass inside. As the season wore on for Armagh, their play evolved from game to game.

Ethan Rafferty was the original target man at the start, but then Jamie Clarke and Kyle Carragher provided a two-man Cross full-forward line. With Kevin Dyas as the transition man between defence and attack, Kernan acknowledges he could play off and around the Dromintee man. By accident or design, Armagh finished up with a style of football that was one part blanket defence, one part Crossmaglen kick-passing.

We never got to hear much of this talk because of the media ban imposed by the management. Kernan has an interesting take on it.

"I had no real opinion on it (the media ban). I have no desire to promote my media profile. This is the only newspaper interview I have ever done.

"It doesn't bother me because my aim is to get into the team, that was my focus and I never worried about the papers. I don't know if it galvanised the panel or anything like that. I was just trying to perform."

One season ended on Saturday. Paul Grimley stepped down midweek, but it was an open secret anyway. For now, Crossmaglen are back out in Championship action this weekend, aiming for their 18th Gerry Fagan Cup in 19 seasons when they take on Sarsfields.

Last Saturday night the Armagh players had a drink together, but on Sunday morning, Tony and brother Aaron were out watching new managers John McEntee and Oisín McConville putting the team through a session.

The wheel turns again. Excellence never rests.

Belfast Telegraph


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