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Kernan is raring to go after finally making it to Australia

 

By Declan Bogue

Every life is full of sliding door moments, but consider how Joe Kernan's choices have impacted Armagh football.

Over 40 years ago, he was a young man hanging around Crossmaglen. Work was scarce. He lost his father when he was just 11 and his mother, Joan, used to divide her time between home and her daughters Olivia and Annette in Canberra, Australia where they had moved after marrying two Quinn brothers from Cullyhanna with connections Down Under.

The sisters pleaded with the young Joe to follow them. Work was plentiful, wages were good and the sun was high in the sky.

But he held firm. He played in an All-Ireland final in 1977, married Patricia from Jonesborough, went on to establish Crossmaglen as one of the most successful clubs on the island and led Armagh to their only All-Ireland title in 2002.

"I had the chance but I didn't take it," he reflected as he arrived in Australia for the first time ever, this time as manager of Ireland's International Rules team.

"There wasn't much happening. I was in my early 20s. They begged me to go out and I stayed. I felt if I went out there I might like it and I wouldn't be back. I stuck with the football, and thank God I didn't move out."

This trip is loaded with poignancy. He gets to see his son Paul, who made a different decision. A brilliant full-back with Crossmaglen sides and an All-Ireland winner, he damaged his shoulder badly and used the lay-off to try Australia out for size.

Selling real estate now, he will be acting as the Ireland team 'runner' in the Test this weekend in Adelaide and next weekend in Perth, a role he is inheriting from brother Aaron. And after that?

"I am going out to see if he is coming home," said his father.

The 'Compromise Rules' games of the '80s came along too late for Joe as a player - "It was too rough then anyway!" he jokes - but he is relishing management again.

In any of his roles, he has always been a slave to attention to detail and this is borne out in his backroom team.

Former Antrim footballer and long-time collaborator John McCloskey is his coach. Ciaran Sloan of Down football and Ulster Rugby fame is there as his strength and conditioning expert.

Former Tyrone player Enda McGinley, who Kernan would have plotted against in the past, is on duty as the team physio.

Paraic Joyce, Darragh ÓSé and Dermot Earley are his selectors and he has Aussie Rules players Zach Tuohy, Pierce Hanley and Conor McKenna there to second-guess his opposite number Chris Scott.

"All this bubble could burst! But at the same time you always try to do what you think is best," he stated.

The International Rules series is always in need of selling. The businessman in Kernan recognises the perpetual threat of collapse.

"Two years ago when we played this game in Croke Park, if we hadn't have put on a good performance and played good football and have it exciting where people were on the edge of their seats, it could have been the end of it," he admitted.

"So we were happy with the way we played. They sent over a very good squad and we were able to hold on and win, that was great. If there had have been a match the following week, there would have been 60-70,000 at it.

"From that point of view it was very good, but here we go again. We are trying to sell it, keep the thing going."

If Ireland win, the offers to go back into management - at both club and county level - will undoubtedly come.

Those who approach, though, will find themselves disappointed.

"No, not a chance. Not a chance," he said of a return.

"You have to love to want to do it. I did it with my club, my county, I went to Galway and I wouldn't have gone to Galway only my mother was from Galway and I had a soft spot for her, I had a soft spot for Galway.

"I was offered other counties, and I said no. Good people offered them to me and I said no. What they were offering me was unbelievable but I said no.

"I am a home bird. I have a love for my own. For me, it's the type of job you would take on because number one, you believe in the people, two you love the area and three, you want what's best for them."

So don't expect him to spend his senior years criss-crossing all over the island, spreading the gospel of the diagonal ball, or joining the army of carpet-baggers taking one club after another.

"I could never do that. And that's just me. It's nothing to do with anybody else. If you haven't the love for it, it could never be the same and players aren't stupid," he said. "They aren't very long in sussing you out unless you have the same passion as they have.

"When you are trying to grow that passion in a team, grow that loyalty, that commitment and drive, and if you don't have it, how do you expect to give them it?"

In the meantime, the Adelaide Oval awaits.

"It's exciting, it's a test of character. It's all those things you want in a match except it's two different codes coming together with a game that has a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. But that's the challenge to both teams," he added.

"It excites me that we have players from all over. It's a challenge, you have to go out to battle and that's what we want to do."

Ireland vs Australia

International Rules Test:

Adelaide Oval, Sunday, 4.10 pm local time

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