Brendan Crossan: Appreciating Aaron Kernan's greatness as he retires from Gaelic football

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Aaron Kernan, who finished with Armagh in 2014, played his last game for his club last weekend
Aaron Kernan, who finished with Armagh in 2014, played his last game for his club last weekend Aaron Kernan, who finished with Armagh in 2014, played his last game for his club last weekend

FROM the darkened and sound-proof environs of the Healy Park press box last Saturday evening, a handful of hard-bitten GAA reporters watched the final throes of Aaron Kernan’s playing career.

We didn’t know it at the time, though, as Trillick began to turn the screw in the second half of their Ulster quarter-final joust with Crossmaglen Rangers.

Because of the mist that had settled on the field, it was difficult to get a clear view of the action over towards the stand side of the ground.

Through binoculars, I watched Lee Brennan gain possession of the ball in the 50th minute.

Kernan happened to be the closest defender to him.

Kernan did what all good defenders should do; he made contact several times to try and disrupt the attacker’s movement.

But Trillick’s tails were up at this stage and Crossmaglen were a busted flush.

Brennan shook off Kernan by pretending to shoot. When he reset, he hit a beautiful score. The 'Cross man was beaten.

Brennan's point probably took the roof off the main stand, but because of our sound-proof surroundings, we couldn't hear a thing - just the ecstatic images on the far side.

Through the binoculars' lens, I watched one of the best players of his generation suffer in silence.

The former Armagh wing-back turns 40 next month. After 18 county championships, eight Ulster titles and three All-Ireland crowns with the famous south Armagh club, it was time for him to call it a day.

It doesn't matter how good you are, players never get to choose the exit to their careers.

For Crossmaglen Rangers, it was one of those crossroads defeats last Saturday night, the kind of which they've become sadly too familiar with as they settle back among the chasing pack of contenders they once used to lead.

Of course, the relative youth of the squad will make the winter months a little more palatable, but as Kernan hangs up his boots after 23 years he leaves the stage as still one of the team's best performers.

With Rian O'Neill boxed in by the Trillick defence, the younger players still looked to the likes of Kernan and Jamie Clarke to pull a rabbit out of a hat for them.

Kernan embarked on endless shuttles down the flanks - something he's done for a generation - to try and make things happen for his side.

On the night, he just needed a little more support.

After he announced he was retiring, the club used its social media platforms to publish Kernan's remarkable trophy haul.

It truly is eye-watering. He won four Anglo-Celts with Armagh, a Division One title, an U21 All-Ireland and a host of individual gongs that included the 2005 GAA Young Player of the Year.

As late as 2018, he was voted the best footballer in the Armagh SFC and was selected on the county championship team of 2022.

Aaron Kernan was the kind of footballer that would have shone in any era.

You could break down the technical elements of his game and he was as close to flawless as you'd get - but more than that was his courage on the field.

No matter the circumstances of the game, Kernan always wanted the ball.

The uncoachable element of any player is how brave they are in difficult moments.

There is no statistical measure for it. Kernan never hid on a field; he would always offer himself as an outlet.

So often the game-changer, his penetrating runs and decision-making in possession were outrageously consistent.

He was, of course, a few years too young to be part of the 2002 All-Ireland winning squad, but when he did emerge on the scene a few years later, he was exactly what Armagh needed.

Armagh's half-back line in the early 'Noughties' was of its time: teak-tough, good game-managers and brilliant kick passers.

Aidan O'Rourke was often handed man-marking roles, Andy McCann was such a steady performer and the middle was stitched together by Kieran McGeeney.

But Mickey Harte's Tyrone team had another dimension to their half-back line. They had front-footed wing-backs who offered greater attacking threat.

Davy Harte and Phillip Jordan spent more time attacking from the flanks than defending in their own defensive positions.

Kernan came along and gave Armagh exactly the same dimension. To break into that Armagh team was a feat in itself, but once he was in, the number five jersey was virtually undisputed which illustrates how good he was from an early age.

Aaron Kernan was one of the best of his generation
Aaron Kernan was one of the best of his generation Aaron Kernan was one of the best of his generation

What’s also remarkable about the Crossmaglen man’s career was his longevity and his physical conditioning.

And yet, he quit playing for Armagh in his prime, at the end of the 2014 season, when he was arguably the best player in Croke Park on the day they lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Donegal.

It was a decision he's always kept his counsel on.

A few years back, he graced The Irish News pages with a brilliant weekly column.

You could tell he cared and thought deeply about the game and always offered great tactical and technical insight.

Forever the perfectionist, he once told me that writing the column just took him too long and consumed him on a Sunday and Monday, and so he happily stood aside for someone else to have a go at it.

The Noughties was a truly great time to be reporting on Gaelic football because Ulster football was experiencing another golden era.

Around that time too, journalists had a great affinity with many of the players. Win, lose or draw, Aaron would stop and have a chat.

I always found him to be someone with impeccable manners, an extremely grounded young man and an absolute credit to Joe and Patricia.

He’ll continue to be a role model for the young footballers of Crossmaglen and he’ll almost certainly be remembered as one of the best of his generation.

Aaron Kernan won 18 county championships with Crossmaglen
Aaron Kernan won 18 county championships with Crossmaglen Aaron Kernan won 18 county championships with Crossmaglen