GAA Football

Best of Enemies - Aaron Kernan: 'The only consolation I can take is how class he turned out to be'

In a latest of our ‘Best of Enemies' series reflecting on some of the GAA's red hot rivalries on the field, Armagh and Crossmaglen ace Aaron Kernan tells Neil Loughran about Dublin's deadly duo, and the Pearse Og man who just never stopped…

Aaron Kernan first marked Diarmuid Connolly in a challenge game against St Vincent's in 2007 - a year later they met in an All-Ireland Club semi-final, with the Dublin star coming out on top. Picture by Philip Walsh

Diarmuid Connolly (Dublin)

THE first time I came across Diarmuid Connolly was when Crossmaglen played St Vincent’s in a challenge game before the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final [against St Brigid’s, Roscommon]. It was a Wednesday night down in St Vincent’s, and we absolutely wiped the floor with them.

Connolly was only coming on the scene so you’d just heard a bit about him and how talented he was but it was an annihilation job – he wasn’t really involved.

I’ve spoken to Brian Mullins in the years since, and it turns out that night was a wake-up call within their club. We went on to win the All-Ireland Club that year, while St Vincent’s had a meeting and said ‘that’s the standard we need to get to’.

They got their act together really quickly, won Dublin that year and the following February we ended up playing them in the All-Ireland semi-final at Pairc Tailteann. They beat us easy [2-9 to 0-11]; they were really up for it, taking motivation from that challenge match the year before.

All across the field they were better than us, but unfortunately for me Diarmuid was on top form. They got two goals in the first 15 minutes which really put us on the back foot, and he kicked three points from play off me – I can’t remember anyone kicking that amount off me from play.

The Thursday before we played a game in training and I’d picked up a dead leg after colliding with Jamie Clarke, so I wasn’t 100 per cent going into it - but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been flying fit, at the peak of my powers.

Even at that stage there were rumours he had a bit of a temper, but he wasn’t involved in anything like that. There was no talking, he was just extremely focused and so direct. Every time he got the ball he was just going at you.

The scary thing for me, from very early on, was I hadn’t a clue which way he was going to turn. There were times I thought he was going to take another solo because he just didn’t look like he had the right balance to shoot off his left foot, then he’d slot it over the bar.

The first time he did that I was thinking ‘he’ll not get away with that again – he chanced that one’. The next time he’d cut inside and go with his right foot; over the bar. He just was that good.

It took me about 20 minutes of mad scrambling to just about start to get a handle on him, but by then the damage was done – the team was shipping water and I was under pressure like I’d never experienced before.

That was the only time I came up against him directly; there was nothing I could’ve done that was going to stop him. The only consolation I can take all these years later is how class he turned out to be. St Vincent’s went on to win the All-Ireland that year, and there are plenty of players a hell of a lot better and more decorated than me who have faced the same issues I did.

Funnily enough, one fella I would’ve marked regularly in county training who would’ve reminded me an awful lot of Connolly was Stefan Campbell. He’s the same type of player, so big, strong, powerful, quick, two-footed. That’s what makes guys like that such a nightmare to mark.

There were nights I was running after ‘Soupy’ in training and, in my own mind, I’d be transported back to Navan.

In a 2008 National League game in Crossmaglen, Bernard Brogan scored 1-2 for Dublin against Armagh. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

Bernard Brogan (Dublin)

LIKE Connolly, I only ever marked Bernard competitively on one occasion. It was a National League game in Cross in 2008. The first day we were due to play them, the heavens opened about two hours before the game and it was called off. They came back a few weeks later, the Dubs packed the whole place out; it was the biggest crowd I’ve seen in Cross.

Brogan was just getting on the team at that stage. He scored 1-2 that day, but I wouldn’t say he got five touches of the ball. Unlike Connolly, he was never looking to be the outlet. At least with him, he was looking every ball, you knew you had to be on him.

Brogan was probably an inside forward playing as a half-forward - he was a poacher, hanging on the periphery, waiting for someone to win it and then he was coming in off the wing. The two points he got, I didn’t even think he was going to shoot because he was that much off balance. Of course they went straight over, and that would become the norm for him.

His ability to still hit cleanly through the ball without being fully balanced was unbelievable. As a defender you were always expecting him to steady himself, but he didn’t have to.

The goal came from a long ball in, one of our defenders was coming out to win it, I stopped in front, waiting for him to break the ball to me or for him to win it and give it on.

But Brogan’s instinct told him to keep running towards goal, gambling that it would spill and he would be in - and that’s exactly what happened. He made no mistake once he got the chance.

I know the issue Pat Gilroy had with him was his work-rate, and at no stage that day did he attempt to run back after me. If I got the ball, he would’ve started walking the opposite way.

That’s why Pat was putting him to half-back in training, to show him what it’s like to see somebody waltz out with the ball.

Later in 2008 I was on the International Rules panel with Bernard. We would’ve trained on a Friday night at Croke Park, stayed over and trained again on the Sunday, and every night I seemed to get him. I had the same issues every time.

In that environment, you had to impress – you couldn’t stand back and just mark him. I had to go and get on the ball, get up and get scores; you had a limited opportunity to try and make an impression, to make that panel.

Every opportunity he would get, though, he would punish you.

Pearse Og forward Conor Clarke was a constant thorn in the side of Crossmaglen's Aaron Kernan when the clubs came up against each other in Armagh. Picture by Philip Walsh

Conor Clarke (Pearse Og)

RONAN’S brother, but a serious player in his own right. ‘Shorty’ would’ve been a year younger than me but we played against each other when he was part of those really successful Ogs underage teams – when we beat them in the 2001 semi-final, they were going for five minor titles in-a-row.

Through the years, we’ve come up against each other loads. I marked him in the 2007, 2008 county finals, they beat us in the county quarter-final in 2009, we beat them in the semi in 2011, the final in 2012. There was a county final I got man-of-the-match in and I couldn’t understand how because he had given me such a hard time.

‘Shorty’ was a traditional half-forward in that he ran that line, he was always the outlet, always wanted the ball. He showed for absolutely everything, game as hell.

He had pace, he was strong and he had a smart head on him. A lot of the times in club football, other teams might have put a half-back or a defensive-minded half-forward on me to try and track my runs, where Pearse Og were basically saying ‘right, you’re to go and get the better of him, put him on the back foot’.

They wanted to keep me closer to my own goal, and he had everything you needed to be a forward. When he got the ball, he was extremely direct – put the shoulder down and went straight at you every time.

You don’t get a huge amount of that from half-forwards now, a lot of times they’re just popping balls off to whoever is nearest them, but ‘Shorty’ was looking to get the ball inside to Ronan or his other brother JJ and go straight after it. That makes your life very difficult.

I was always nervous going into games against him because I knew he would definitely cause me problems if I wasn’t at myself. He went on and off the Armagh panel a few times but he probably should have been a county footballer; the only thing that was slightly missing from his game was that bit of composure when he was shooting that Ronan would’ve had.

But he had everything else in terms of physique, work-rate, he was two-footed, brave and had a good football brain. In terms of club footballers in Armagh over the last 15 years, he would have to be up there.

Connolly and Brogan just turned out to be generational players, but in terms of someone who I would’ve continuously come up against, he’s the one who stands out ahead of everybody whether it’s club, county or provincial level.

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