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Kernan still showing that he's no ordinary Joe

Declan Bogue

Tonight, he will complete the full set. Joe Kernan will have managed at club, county, provincial and international level. Impressively, they have all come in that order.

Even more impressively, he has won All-Ireland honours with club, county and province. It only took until his second year in charge of Crossmaglen Rangers to land their first club All-Ireland. In his first year at the helm of Armagh, they won their first All-Ireland.

With Ulster, it was a matter of harnessing the province's unmatched hunger for the inter-provincial series and winning the tournament.

Now, he is Ireland manager and ready to tackle Australia in the International Rules series.

When he was a young man, two of his sisters emigrated to Australia. There were requests for him to join them, but he always had too much football on.

Next year, football will finally bring him Down Under when he returns for the return leg with the Irish team.

Kernan admits he never predicted this kind of life. He never even thought he would be a manager.

He said: "When you start playing, you don't think you're going to be a manager because you think, 'they're a shower of so and sos', especially when you come to the end of your career and you're dropped.

"To play is great; to manage is greater because the satisfaction I get as a manager is watching your players fulfil their potential and see them go up the steps. Same with the club, county and country.

"When you're a player you can become selfish, looking after number one, then you become part of a winning team. To manage, you're looking after all these people and trying to guide and reassure them."

Further reflection can wait. Right now he has pressing concerns. The Ireland team went into camp on Wednesday and things have been ramping up since.

A dinner between both panels and sporting bodies on Thursday night was unusual for a man reared on fierce inter-parish rivalry.

"They are lovely fellas and we had a lovely night, (but) we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. It's not what we are used to," Kernan said.

"I thoroughly enjoyed my evening, but you could see that when the meal was over, both parties wanted to get out of there and get back into their own group."

And inside that group?

"The boys have gelled well," he said. "It's a happy camp, they have worked hard, but as you can see, getting closer to the game, the intensity is now rising. Australia mean business, and so do we.

"We certainly want to perform on the historic night that it is going to be, we want to perform for the home crowd."

The history he refers to is that today marks the 95th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when British forces entered Croke Park and began shooting. They killed a player, Michael Hogan of Tipperary, and 13 others in the crowd.

Just prior to 6.45pm tonight, the lights of Croke Park will be dimmed and 14 flames will be lit on Hill 16. The names of the lost shall be read out.

Much like the famous Ireland-England Six Nations rugby game in 2007, the old stadium will once again be dripping with history. It is 31 years since the Australians sent over a team to compete in a combined rules game as part of the GAA's centenary celebrations. Nobody thought the experiment would be so enduring.

While the idea must have sounded frivolous initially, it is now part of GAA history. Should the two parties realise the vague ambition of having a test in New York - leaked by the Australian party on Thursday - then the question of its future would be emphatically addressed.

In admitting that they have already pencilled in two Tests in Australia next year, Kernan indulged in his inner Don King. He said: "This game has been going for 30 years; this is going to be the toughest Test ever. I'm not going back years ago when there was violence in it; it's going to be the toughest man-to-man, end-to-end game.

"They feel they have to prove themselves and we feel we have to prove ourselves. Last year even when we lost the first two quarters we showed heart and fight to come back and give ourselves a chance."

In a wider context, the popularity of this game is a subject of perpetual agonising. Back in 2006 with the threat of violence never far from the surface, a Test attracted 82,227.

The last home Test in 2013 attracted just over 28,000 people through the gates, even with free admission to youth groups.

"There have been big crowds and there hasn't always been fighting here in Croke Park," reasoned Kernan.

"I hope that we perform to the best of our ability and we know the Australians, being professional, that when they come in they go to war.

"If we get a competitive match I always think there will be a chance people will want to see it. What we are doing is selling it for the next few years. That's our job."

Kernan's ebullience has never been in question. He radiates warmth in a straightforward, Ulsterman sense. His powers of motivation are legendary. He is the only GAA figure we have heard admitting that he prefers managing to playing.

Ireland are in safe hands. The series is in safe hands.

Belfast Telegraph


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