GAA Football

Aaron Kernan: Club championships an exciting time

Last Sunday's drawn Tyrone SFC final between Coalisland and Killyclogher - televised live on TG4 - was an absorbing encounter  

THE next few weekends will see a hive of activity across the country as club championships reach their conclusion.

The weekend past was no different. The ever-reliable TG4 provided us with coverage of the absorbing drawn Tyrone final last Sunday, while Ballyboden St Enda’s relinquished their All-Ireland crown in only the second round of the Dublin championship. Both results provided a reminder of the difficulty faced by club sides striving for success.

It’s a struggle to win county titles, let alone going all the way to Croke Park. Not that I needed reminding of this following our recent last-minute defeat to Cullyhanna in the Armagh semi-final.

For what its worth, I reckon it is tougher to win All-Ireland titles at club level than it is at county level. For instance, to win an All-Ireland club title from Armagh, it means playing a minimum of eight games, over a prolonged eight-month period. The same will apply in almost every county in Ireland, but the wait can, in most cases, be longer.

Club players face greater challenges, such as work and travel commitments, dealing with interrupted seasons and not having the same standard of professional back-up as county teams.

Also, local rivalries are so raw that, regardless of quality in teams, you always have to be on your guard to fend off your neighbour as championship football has a tendency to inspire all players to play a step above themselves. Regardless of our opponents’ perceived standing, I would never take anyone for granted in championship football.

Everyday I line up to perform brings the same nerves, the same voice in my head surfaces telling me to go home, I don’t need to put myself under this pressure. Once the ball is thrown in, the doubt disappears and your mind switches into game mode.

It’s all worth it when things go right, it can be a fantastic journey to be a part of. I’ve been lucky to be part of successful teams, but nothing matched the bond with the group of club-mates and management I was part of from 2010 to '13.

There were many highs, fights and arguments along the way. It ended in heartbreaking fashion with an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to St Brigid’s of Roscommon, but regardless of what came our way, that group always stuck together.

But everything goes in cycles and nothing lasts forever, regardless of how badly you feel you want something. There’s always a young bull that will emerge and want it that bit more.

One of the toughest aspects for successful teams to maintain, and it’s become a buzzword everywhere from New Zealand to Dublin, is ‘culture’. Maintaining the right culture is key to having longevity in your sporting career. Culture - the way of life and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time. In simpler terms, those who are willing to put the team first and personal gain second.

This can be very hard to stay on top of, particularly in an amateur sport such as Gaelic football. Therefore, certain players are inclined to make hay while the sun shines and you can’t blame players for maximising their opportunities when award ceremonies and sponsors come knocking after a successful season.

However, too often players find it hard to then detach themselves from the season previous. Success can make you soft and selfish, both individually and collectively. It usually happens when a team gets success for a first time or maybe ends the run of a barren spell.

They find it very hard to replicate the same drive, hunger and desire that, in most cases, proved the difference between them and their opponents on many occasions the season previous to help them see out tough situations. It takes a strong manager and personality to keep everyone on board and remembering what the journey is all about following success.

I think tradition has a fair bit to do with the self-belief and maintaining the collective group culture. By that, think the All Blacks, Manchester United, Barcelona. In our own country, we have Kilkenny, Kerry and the present day Dubs.

A common trait of all the players on those successful teams mentioned is their constant references to the greats who’ve gone before them, their desire to wear the jersey with the same honour and distinction and their desire to leave their team in a better place for generations to follow them. But just because you haven’t been winning titles from 1884, doesn’t mean you’re never going to. Tyrone proved that in the last decade.

Tradition has to start somewhere. I’ve seen it at first hand with my own club. We had never won an Ulster title, let alone an All-Ireland prior to 1996, yet 20 years on we have won 19 Armagh, 11 Ulster and six All-Ireland titles.

It’s true that, during this period, we’ve seen some of the finest players our club has ever produced, but the most important message embedded in our mindset is ‘what’s best for the club’. However, everyone is human and we have all made mistakes along the way which have proven costly.

Our loss to Pearse Ógs in the 2009 Armagh championship comes to mind. They had a good group of experienced players who played like men possessed, but that was nothing new to us because we have faced that with regularity in championship football throughout the past 20 years.

A key reason we lost then was because we lost our way as a group, as players we were more concerned about ourselves than what was best for the team and when the pressure really came on, the unity wasn’t there, the cracks appeared and it was too late to stop the rot. We were beaten and we had no excuses. That defeat stung for a long time after but, under new management, it didn’t take long for us to refocus the minds and respond in the right manor.

Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody (right) has the ability to unite players in a common cause  

That’s why I admire men like Brian Cody, Steve Hansen, Jim Gavin or Billy Walsh. Yes, they all have exceptionally talent sportsmen at their disposal, but they have the ability to continually unite them for a common cause. They never waver from the culture and belief they have used to build their success on.

For them, it always has and always will be about the team. I had no desire to be as idle as I will be over the next few months but, like all GAA supporters in the province, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on the upcoming results as what looks like an exciting Ulster club championship looms on the horizon.

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