GAA Football

'It was an unbelievable year from start to finish,' Joe Kernan reflects on Armagh's most glorious summer

Armagh Manager Joe Kernan and captain Kieran McGeeney will return to the Carrickdale Hotel to relive the events of 2002 on March 18. Pic Bill Smyth
Andy Watters

“We took the pressure and held our nerve. There was one ball in particular: It hit shoulders, hit knees, hit hands… I turned to the boys on the line and I said: ‘It has to be our day when you win a ball like that’.”

Joe Kernan recalls the 2002 All-Ireland final

IT’S HARD to believe that 20 years have passed since Armagh’s most glorious summer.

Are those dramatic days of galloping forwards, replays and nerve-jangling wins and Kieran McGeeney lifting the Sam Maguire really two decades ago? Remember Armagh went to La Manga? Remember Ray Cosgrove hitting the post for the Dubs? Remember Oisin McConville hitting the Kerry net?

Joe Kernan, the architect of the Orchard county’s success, remembers every single detail.

“My God, that 20 years has gone in a flash,” says Kernan who will be reunited with his players (and some of their opponents) at a charity function in the Carrickdale Hotel on March 18.

“It was an unbelievable year from start to finish. The League campaign didn’t go as well as we wanted and we finished up getting a bit of a hammering from Laois and maybe it just refocussed us? But it was always about the Championship and having Tyrone in the first game was some start.”

Before Tyrone there was that famous trip to La Manga, Spain for a training camp. A GAA team going for warm-weather training? As in training, not a holiday? It was unheard off at the time.

“That got everybody talking,” says Joe.

“We came back and played Tyrone and I’ll never forget coming walking up after the warm-up and these Tyrone supporters started to slag us about our sun tans and ‘How did the holiday go?’ If I’d paid them a thousand pound each they couldn’t have said it any better - I hardly had to say anything to the boys in the dressingroom.

“We worked hard in La Manga at that training camp. There was no drinking by anybody – players or management – we stuck to the reason why we were there and then to come home and be told by the opposition supporters that we were on a holiday? That set the tone and we had two tough matches against Tyrone.”

A late Sean Cavanagh goal meant the first meeting finished in a draw and it was “quick thinking and good finishing” from one of their unsung heroes that saved Armagh’s bacon in the replay a week later.

“As far as us winning the Ulster and the All-Ireland, Barry Duffy’s goal the second day was the difference,” Joe explained.

“It was a great team effort.”

Armagh lost Tony McEntee in the drawn game. An ankle injury robbed the team of his influence throughout much of the campaign but the loss of the Crossmaglen player was made up by the emergence of a teenager from the Cathedral City called Ronan Clark.

“A young lad of 19 and he fitted in as if he’d been playing all his life,” said Joe.

“The things that happen in matches, the things that people forget, as a team management we remember every single item. The season started off with excitement and we were on the edge of our seats for the whole year.”

Of course the Tyrone draw wasn’t the only one of the campaign. After Armagh had beaten Donegal to win a third Ulster title in three years, a talented Sligo side proved to be very dogged opposition in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Indeed, the Yeatsmen – who had trailed by six points at one stage - had a late chance to win at Croke Park but Dara McGarty opted to fist a point when he was through one-on-one with Benny Tierney.

“I thought it was all over,” Kernan admits.

“We weren’t happy with what we did that day but we put it to bed in Navan (venue for the replay which Armagh won by two points).

“There were a couple of things that day – Paul McGrane gave an exhibition of fielding, he gave us nine clean catches from kickouts and then Ronan Clarke’s goal and another man who wasn’t heard of too much that year was John Donaldson.

“We were having problems with their wing half-forward so we put on ‘John D’ and we never seen yer man again and John went up the field and got us a free for a point.

“He didn’t take any more part and hadn’t played before that game but he was the man that day.

“These are the players that people don’t remember but we certainly do as management and team-mates.”

There were so many moments over eight games of football and only the Ulster semi-final against Fermanagh could be described (on the scoreboard at least) as a ‘comfortable win’. Is there a moment stands out for the Armagh manager?

The All-Ireland semi-final was an extraordinarily intense tussle against the Dubs at a packed Croke Park. A pressure-cooker game boiled down to a late Ray Cosgrove free. In normal circumstances it would have been a tap-over but there was enormous pressure on the shoulders of the Dublin forward, who had been outstanding throughout the game.

He the ball high towards the Hill and it curled in from right to left, but not enough. The ball hit the outside of the post and alert Armagh defenders cleared the danger in the remaining seconds.

“My wife Patricia always said that the semi-final was more emotional than any other game,” says Kernan.

“The free at the end… It was such a relief. I remember Sean O’Neill telling me a long time ago that you have to believe that every shot from the opposition is going to hit the upright.

“He scored a great goal for Down against Kerry one year. The ball hit the post and, while Kerry were looking up, he had the ball in the back of the net.

“When the whole of the Hill and the Dublin players was looking at the post and the ball hitting it, Francie Bellew got it and gave it to John McEntee and the final whistle blew.”

Then there was the final against Kerry. The Kingdom were superior in the first half and made scoring look easy at times until Armagh dragged themselves back into the game.

Oisin McConville’s goal blew the lid off the final and once Armagh got their noses in front there was no way they were going to loosen their grip on the Sam Maguire. There were no scores in the last 12 minutes of that game and every single ball was a battle.

“The intensity, the workrate… we never folded and to me that showed the character and the reason we won,” says Joe.

“We took the pressure and held our nerve. There was one ball in particular: It hit shoulders, hit knees, hit hands… I turned to the boys on the line and I said: ‘It has to be our day when you win a ball like that’.

“Tony McEntee came on that day and was brilliant. The last ball he got Justy McNulty gave it to him and he gave it to Geezer. How appropriate that Geezer finished with the ball.”

Kernan, McGeeney, Benny Tierney and Oisin McConville will be among the guests reliving those halcyon days on March 18 and all proceeds from the event will go to the James Reel Playpark appeal.

“I hope we all live a long time but that day against Kerry and that year will never be forgotten. A lot of the things that people didn’t see and didn’t hear about, they’ll hear about them if they come to the Carrickdale that night,” said Joe.

“They can ask the questions that maybe people were afraid to ask at the time about the things we did. Once the Reel family mentioned this, it was always going to be a winner. They’re a great family and what happened to James was an awful tragedy but they’re going to leave something now for the community that will remember James for all time.

“It’ll be a fantastic night and fair play to them for wanting to do it – they’re very driven, they’re committed and certainly they want to leave a legacy and they will do that and we’re only too glad to help.

“They want it to be a happy night, a great night of remembrance that everybody will enjoy and nobody enjoyed that year more than James.”

Joe Kernan joins Armagh players including Kieran McGeeney and representatives from some of the Orchard county’s opponents at a reunion in the Carrickdale Hotel on Friday, March 18 to relive the 2002 season.

Sunday Game presenter Joanne Cantwell will MC a night of football and fun and tickets are available through Eventbrite, the Carrickdale Hotel and Silverbridge Harps GAC.

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