'Ageless' Aaron Kernan remains a peerless performer as Crossmaglen Rangers return to Armagh final
THE labels have changed – nowadays he’s the ‘ageless’ Aaron Kernan’ or the ‘evergreen’ Aaron Kernan’ – but the maestro is playing as well as ever.
Now 34, the former Armagh wing-back was a man of the match contender again on Sunday as Crossmaglen swatted Cullyhanna aside to return to the county final stage after two years in - for a club that had won 19 out of the previous 20 titles - the doldrums.
Cross set their own standards and they are judged differently too and Kernan, now almost 20 years into his career with the famous south Armagh outfit, couldn’t hide his delight at a return to the Orchard county showpiece on October 21.
“It feels so long since we’ve been in a county final,” he said after the 0-19 to 1-14 win.
“Our last one was 2015 and I didn’t play in it because I was injured so the last time I played in a county final was four years ago. What I’ve won in the past and what this club has won in the past is irrelevant to me because the best team always wins the championship.
“We haven’t won it for the past two years and it was up to us to try and turn that around. We learned plenty during the League campaign and we never had a full team but I felt that we were starting to build a bit of momentum over the past two weeks and show some of the old signs in terms of our desire, our energy, our workrate across the field and also our composure on the ball to work simple scores.
“We’re delighted with the score that we put up on the board and we’re thrilled to be back in the county final.”
Cullyhanna pushed young forward Ross McQuillan up to mark him on Sunday and early in the game McQuillan got on the ball and went charging for the Crossmaglen posts. Kernan matched him stride for stride and the pressure paid off as McQuillan, an emerging talent, lost possession just as he had worked a scoring position. Kernan took charge from then on.
“Right now I don’t feel evergreen,” he joked after the game.
“When I went out onto the field I saw Ross walking over towards me and it was interesting to say the least.
“I was always a big fan of his father, the great Martin, and I would be very close with him. I idolised him when I was younger so I know the pedigree of Ross and I’ve seen him with club and county coming up and I had an idea that maybe he would be coming up on me.
“He’s a super talent for the county moving forward and I would rather watch him playing for Armagh than have to come up against him again. It definitely was challenging for an older man like me.”
Cullyhanna’s youngsters struggled to make an impact on Sunday but Rian and Oisin O’Neill, Johnny McKeever and Alan Farrelly were among the Crossmaglen fledglings who flourished under the wings of Kernan and fellow veterans like Rico Kelly, Johnny Hanratty and Mickey McNamee.
But times have changed since Kernan first joined the senior ranks.
“I didn’t kick a ball for Cross for three years,” he explains.
“I was in the Cross panel in 2001 and 2002 when we were winning games handy and winning titles and I literally could not get on as a sub. Whereas these boys are being thrown straight in at midfield, centre half-forward, full-forward… There’s huge expectancy.
“Crossmaglen is a ruthless place whenever you’re not winning because it’s very doom and gloom and there was an awful lot of pressure on them. But you can see that they’ve adapted to senior football now, I could see them coming through this years and they give you a new lease of life.
“I suppose young ones these days are totally different to what we were growing up but I’ve adapted to live with them and to cope with how they get on with life.
“They’re different, maybe I’m a serious person, but they’re more laid-back characters although they’re serious about their football and they’re good footballers. Their confidence has been knocked back this few years so I’m delighted for them that they’ve got back to a big day but we’re no fools whenever it comes to this stage of the championship.
“We didn’t win any trophies tonight, semi-finals are all about winning and I can’t wait to get out for a county final day.”
Next up, Crossmaglen face Ballymacnab in the county final. The Round Towers club has made the very best of the resources at their disposal and will go into the final as underdogs but they won Armagh’s senior league this year, beating Cross twice in the process.
“They’re very impressive, they have huge scoring power and they’re not new,” said Kernan.
“Ballymacnab have been around for the guts of 10 years now competing at the top of Division One and they’ve been in county finals and county semi-finals every year.
“I didn’t see their game the other night but I’m sure I’ll see plenty over the next couple of weeks and to be fair we all know plenty about each other. It’s a new game and a new challenge but I can’t overstate how happy I am that we are back in the county final.
“We’ve left here (the Athletic Grounds) with our tails between our legs for the last two years and it hasn’t been a nice journey home and it could be that again in the county final if we’re not fully prepared for it.”
Ballymacnab have never won Armagh’s senior championship and their only previous final appearance ended in a 25-point drubbing from Cross back in 2011. They will be determined not to go out the same way on Sunday week while the Rangers will be determined to prove they deserve to be back at the top table.
“I never thought I’d played in my last final - and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way - because I knew the talent that was coming through,” Kernan explains.
“We won our fourth county minor title in five years yesterday. I know it will take time for them to step up to senior level but I know the quality that’s there and I know we have a good mixture of players.
“I would never have said we were completely finished but I definitely knew we were down the pecking order. People thought ‘Oh it’s a certainty that Cross will be in the final every year’ and those days were gone and they still are gone because we’ve just made one final with a new group of players.
“It’s exciting times for them and I definitely think they can handle it.
“They have a good temperament and I’d like to think that between our management team and older players we can help them along as well. At the same time, hopefully their enthusiasm will rub off on us as well.”