Captain Kernan focused on leading Crossmaglen into battle
“Seo libh canaig amhrán na bhfiann”
AS the final bars of the Irish national anthem are drowned out by the crowd’s roar on county final day, the Kernan brothers seek each other out and give each other a hug and a final reminder to leave it all on the pitch.
That’s been the way of it ever since 2003 when Aaron Kernan played in his first county final for Crossmaglen after spending a few seasons with the club’s juniors to get the necessary experience to make the breakthrough.
As the music died, he embraced his brother Stephen and went to work as the south Armagh men claimed a two-point win over Dromintee.
And that’s where the tradition started.
The number of hugs grew with Tony and Paul earning spots in the first 15, but the importance never diminished.
Fast-forward to county final day 2018 and Kernan is out having a walk to clear his head a few hours before setting off to the Athletic Grounds for their final with Ballymacnab.
Then it hits him. With Tony injured, Stephen retired and Paul in Australia, the tradition would come to an end, temporarily at least.
“Since ’03 there would have always been at least two of us,” said Kernan.
“I never really paid any attention until I took off out of the house to be by myself for a while and I thought of it then. It hit me and I said ‘Jesus, I’ll be the only one of us out there.’
“Hopefully now Tony is back in the squad for the Coalisland game and neither of us has any thoughts of retirement yet so hopefully it’s not the end of it.”
The pre-game routine may have altered but the post-match one was all too familiar as the Rangers secured their 44th county title following a thrilling 0-24 to 1-15 win over a gallant ‘Nab side.
Amazingly, 50 percent of those championship successes have come without the club losing an Armagh final. Twenty-two times they have taken to the field and 22 times they have left it with the Gerry Fagan Cup in tow.
All but two of those have come during the club’s incredible run since 1996 when they have lifted the title 20 times out of 23 attempts.
2009 (Pearse Ogs), 2016 (Maghery) and 2017 (Armagh Harps) are the only occasions that different coloured ribbons have decorated the handles of the trophy.
It seems incredible for a man who had already won 14 Armagh championships along with eight Ulster and three All-Ireland titles, but when he arrived at pre-season for the 2018 campaign, he still had one big regret.
That was the fact that he had never captained the side to a championship title.
He had one shot previously, but a meek quarter-final exit to the Ogs in ’09 killed those ambitions – or so he thought.
The appointment of Donal Murtagh - the man who had handed him the captaincy nine years ago - alongside Kieran Donnelly gave him another shot at redemption, and the 34-year-old gobbled it up.
“I never said it to anyone apart from my wife (Marianne) but deep down it was something that was genuinely always hanging over me.
“It was a huge disappointment for me at that stage. It was obviously a big disappointment for the club as well.
“The way we work it is that you usually just get one year as captain so my fear always was that time had passed me by.
“There were lots of people entitled to the opportunity, a lot of men coming after me that would have deserved it.
“As the years rolled on I thought that was it but at the start of the year the new management came in and pulled me aside.
“They told me that they had me in mind and asked me was it something I wanted seeing as ’09 didn’t go well.
“I told them it was a responsibility that I wanted and thankfully it worked out this time.”
As a result, Kernan will lead the team out on Saturday night when Coalisland visit the Athletic Grounds, although technically they have a shorter distance to travel than the Rangers despite being the designated away team.
This will be Crossmaglen’s 53rd Ulster Club clash (including replays) since their dominance began in 1996 but it will only be their eighth fixture against a side from the Red Hand county and their first encounter with the Na Fianna club.
Errigal Ciaran have taken up four of the previous seven spots with Crossmaglen losing a famous three-game saga in 2002 before gaining some revenge in 2012.
They have also defeated Killyclogher (2003) and Dromore (2007) while Omagh edged them out four years ago at Healy Park.
Kernan is looking forward to testing himself against fresh opposition.
“Given the amount of times we’ve played in the Ulster Club, you’d have expected to come across everyone by this stage,” he said.
“It’s a first for both of us because we haven’t been paired off against each other before.
“The only history between us, if you want to call it that, is when we played them in an Ulster Minor game in 2006 or 2007.
“I’d say we might have two or three boys from that squad still there, I think Kyle Carragher and maybe Rico (Kelly) were on that side.
“It’s a completely new challenge for both clubs and as a player it’s a great chance to play high-quality opposition under lights.
“Most of our games this year were under lights and the atmosphere in the Athletic Grounds is always good, the noise stays in the crowd.
“It’s Armagh against Tyrone, it’s probably the same distance from Coalisland as it is from Cross and the fact that there are no other big games on will draw neutrals from Down, Monaghan and south Derry.
“People will be looking for their football fix and that should definitely add to the whole occasion.”