This week, I caught up with my old team-mate Stephen Kernan ahead of the biggest game in his fledgling managerial career.
Having stepped away as a player and after a couple of years with the minors, he has stepped into arguably the most pressurised job in the club game where success is demanded - Crossmaglen seniors.
A top-class player with club and county and a pocket full of medals, his drive to succeed as a manager is obvious and when you consider his father Joe's unprecedented success as a boss, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
His managerial career may be in its infancy, but expect it to be sustained and successful.
Oisin: With all the disruption to the season and lockdown, it’s been a bizarre start to your managerial life. How have you coped?
Stephen: It hasn’t been ideal but once we got our head around it initially, we’ve coped fairly well I think. Within reason we’ve tried to maintain our standards in preparation but it is hard to maintain that without the camaraderie we always had in the changing room, the craic and banter have been lost to a large degree.
Oisin: Have you implemented ideas and experience from your playing days, which weren’t that long ago?
Stephen: I’ve definitely taken a lot from my playing days both from a player’s point of view and from the various managers that I played under. There were times as a player that I distinctly remember certain things being done or said at various stages in each year that made me feel particularly confident and encouraged. I’d made a mental note of the context of how it was done and similarly there was also the opposite when some players or managers said and did things that didn’t make me feel so good and I’d rather not make the same mistakes as them.
Oisin: You also have a big GAA support, no more so than your family.
Stephen: Yes, we are a fairly tight family and heavily involved in the club. I’m delighted to have Aaron and Tony still playing, they’ve been great players for Cross during their careers but their main role now within the group along with Kyle Carragher is definitely leadership. The support that you get from these older players from a management point of view is invaluable as we’ve such a young group of players and they are still finding their own way. Not that we actually discuss things that much, more so in the way that they trust myself, Jim and Francis in what we’re asking the team to do each day and they do it without question. Once you’ve senior players like that, the younger boys follow suit. The three lads, along with some others, are great role models for the younger generation in how they conduct themselves on and off the field.
Oisin: Cross are known winners, does that put extra pressure on your shoulders?
Stephen: I don’t think so, I certainly don’t feel any extra pressure because of the club’s expectations. I feel that my own are high enough!
Oisin: And the same for having such a successful father in management?
Stephen: I’m very proud of my parents, how they’ve raised us and how they help shape our personalities and perception of life. I feel that I am in a better place now to follow my aspirations in management than I was chasing my dreams as a player. It’s true that my father was very successful in management with Cross and Armagh, but before that he was a very successful player for both teams as well. I followed my dad’s path, along with my brothers, in GAA and four of us were very lucky to have made it to inter-county football with Armagh. When I joined the Armagh senior team I had too much respect for everyone around the team and certain things happened to me that knocked me back quite badly for a few years. Moving into management and following my dad’s footsteps again, I do so with this experience in the back of my head. I’m a more self-confident person, I’m very content in my own skin and not so concerned with what others think.
Oisin: How has the transition been from player to coach?
Stephen: The transition has been okay, it’s been made easier because we’ve such a group of talented young footballers in the club and I love coaching them. The buzz of playing is gone and I’m not getting it back, I’ve come to terms with that now, but watching the lads perform in games the way we’ve been coaching them does replace it to a certain extent.
Oisin: Have you had to change relationships with certain players now that you are the boss?
Stephen: Not really, there aren’t many senior players left. Managing the senior players’ bodies more so than their heads is key at this stage in their careers.
Oisin: What has it been like watching from the sidelines rather than taking part?
Stephen: The buzz is gone and that was tough to be honest. Even though we lie in bed before Championship games as players and stress over things, the feeling on the field that you and I experienced on lots of occasions is amazing; big scores, big plays and big wins. The new role on the sideline and looking after the lads is different, rewarding in many ways, but still different.
Oisin: You are in your first Armagh final today as manager, what are your thoughts on it all?
Stephen: I’m looking forward to it, delighted to be here. I know it’s going to be tough, every final is. I think we’re in a good place and at this stage I’d just be hoping that each player performs and does their job. We can’t ask for anything more.
Oisin: Looking back at your own playing career, what did you enjoy the most?
Stephen: At the time I always focused on the next game, next competition and next trophy but now I’m retired I’ve realised it was the friendship and craic we had. Particularly in the Crossmaglen dressing room, we had some serious characters.
Oisin: What game was the highlight?
Stephen: The highlight of my career was winning the Under-21 All-Ireland in 2004 with Armagh. That was my first All-Ireland but it meant so much to myself and Aaron in particular. We had a wonderfully talented group of players, some great fellas and a management team that we would have done anything for. They were all good guys and Peter Rafferty was a brilliant man-manager, someone I just loved playing football for.
Oisin: And the lowlight?
Stephen: There’s more than one, but not getting the opportunity with my brothers and friends from the 2004 and 2007 Under-21 teams in Armagh to try and win a senior All-Ireland would be the biggest disappointment.
Oisin: Who do you admire in the game?
Stephen: Again, there are many across the game, but for inspiration in sport and guidance in management, I don’t have to look too far outside of Crossmaglen.
Oisin: How far do you want to take management?
Stephen: At the minute, I’m focused on finishing the season. What the future brings, I don’t know.