Aaron Kernan: Envy of Ulster Slaughtneil deserve all the plaudits they get
AS I reached the edge of Armagh city last Sunday, I met a wall of cars parked well out the Keady Road and droves of supporters making their way towards the Athletic Grounds in the distance, with the lights in full glow brightening up a dull autumn evening.
I was an envious observer, knowing the glorious opportunity that lay ahead of the Slaughtneil and Kilcoo players. They were about to enter the arena to perform in front of thousands of Gaels on the biggest stage for club football in our province with the prize of an Ulster title at stake; it’s something every club player aspires to.
The Athletic Grounds, as always, was in superb condition; it is a venue that has now become the prime location for showpiece games in the province. The close proximity of the supporters to the field, coupled with the stands on both sides that keep the atmosphere in the ground, always add to the occasion for the players.
As always, Ulster Gaels didn’t disappoint, with over 9,000 turning up for the showpiece event. Judging by the television pictures from both the Connacht and Munster finals, I would hazard a guess that there were more spectators in Armagh last Sunday than there were in Carrick-on-Shannon and Mallow combined.
Given both sides’ form in their comprehensive semi-final victories, a classic encounter was expected. While competitive and tense throughout, the expected quality never materialised, mainly due to the fact that both defences dictated terms.
Only Shane McGuigan from Slaughtneil and Ceilum Doherty from Kilcoo, with three points from play apiece, were able to trouble their opponents and the scoreboard with regularity.
Both management teams got their defensive match-ups correct from the outset, none moreso than Slaughtneil’s deployment of Brendan Rogers on Kilcoo’s talisman Paul Devlin.
Rogers was a colossus throughout. His reading of the game was superb. Defensively, he was always in the right place at the right time and, when needed, he gambled on a few occasions by playing in front of his man to cut out long deliveries.
But he wasn’t satisfied to leave it there and time and again broke from defence at pace to create overlaps and space for his team-mates. Not only was he able to snuff out the dangerous threat of Devlin, he also got forward help himself to two first half points.
I read last week that, only a few years ago, Rogers found himself as a substitute on Slaughtneil’s reserve team. Now still only 22, it’s safe to say he has come a long way in a short period of time. He has grown into one of the mainstays and leaders of not only the footballers, but their hurlers as well.
I attended last Sunday’s game, like many others, as a neutral but left with admiration for all that Slaughtneil have achieved on the field of play this season. For personal reasons, I was delighted for both Paul and Patsy Bradley in particular.
While on honeymoon in January 2012, as myself and my wife were boarding a boat for a trip around the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, Australia I noticed the two Bradleys joining our tour group, which would visit various locations as we made our way down the east coast.
I had never met the lads in person, other than on the playing field a few times when we clashed for club and county and I knew little about them. As it turns out, once the ice was broken, we couldn’t have been in better company. Both men are as down to earth and genuine as you could meet.
At the time I was preparing for our upcoming All Ireland semi-final against Dr Croke’s, which was scheduled for three weeks after my return. We shared a 4x4 with the lads as part of the group’s three-day tour around Frazer Island.
Not long after we arrived, a text came through from my then-club manager Tony McEntee outlining the running session I needed to replicate that I had missed out on at home. Training alone isn’t easy; training on Frazer Island when a barbie was about to kick off was even tougher. As I grabbed my gear to go down to the beach the two lads said, “sure we’ll join you”.
Both men said that they were not in peak fitness but they’d do what they could. I didn’t care, I was just happy to have company. For the next hour we ran ourselves to a standstill completing 200m runs, one after another, while the rest of the multi-national party sipped beers laughing at us.
They had no idea why I would want to put myself through such torture; but the two Bradleys knew my motivation. They could have stopped at any stage, they didn’t need that hassle on their holidays but at no stage did they give in, they were never going to let me suffer alone.
After that day, both men joined me in every gym and running session I completed for the remainder of the trip, which meant I returned home in good shape and ready to perform. We have remained in contact ever since. I will be forever grateful for the part the boys played in helping me achieve my goal of winning that All-Ireland title.
The tables have now turned and the Bradleys and their Slaughtneil team-mates have brought 2016 to a close as the envy of Ulster.