Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning manager Joe Kernan hopes that his native county ‘lets the shackles off’ this Sunday, as the Orchard side go in search of a first Ulster title since 2008.
It’s been a long 15 years for the Armagh men, who, prior to this season have been in the doldrums of the GAA championship in only winning three Ulster matches under the stewardship of Kieran McGeeney, since he took over as manager in 2015.
But despite their relegation from Division 1 this season, there has been an air of optimism in the county’s rejuvenation and style of football, none highlighted more than them racking up a total of 5-44 in this season’s championship.
Looking at his county’s 2023 league campaign, Kernan states; “There’s always going to be question marks, but it was very disappointing when we dropped down from Division 1 because that’s where you want to be playing every year,” said the Crossmaglen man on the OurGame.ie podcast.
“Armagh have put a lot into the league the last couple of years and we were unlucky because there was only a couple of points between us and the top teams.
“The games we lost, we only lost by a point or two, so we have to show we can stay in these games and learn from them.
“This Sunday it’s important that we take the handcuffs off and just go for it. No holding back.”
They say actions speak louder than words and Kernan has proven that many times throughout his legendary career, but confesses that the key to any team’s success often rides on the back of lady luck.
“Any team that is going to win anything needs that little bit of luck and I think Armagh have that this season.
“We are starting to get more goals coming from direct play which is great to see. I think we look better playing that way when going forward and it suits us better.”
When questioned if luck ever fell his way throughout his lengthy career in management with Armagh, the 69-year-old joked; “I was lucky to get the job”, before recounting his All-Ireland winning season in 2002.
“In the semi-final against Dublin, the best forward in the country missed a 30-yard free kick. If that kick went over the bar, it would’ve been so easy for us to drop our heads.
“But most of all, the boys were always told to be aware in case the ball comes off the post and it did that day and Francie Bellew, as slow as he may be, was quickest to react. It’s small things like that.
“Even in the final, Oisín (McConville) with the penalty, a lesser man would’ve gone home at half-time, he instead went out and kick 1-2 and got the goal through the eye of a needle, so it can go either way and it lifts a team too.”
In looking towards this weekend’s Ulster final, the two-time All-Star winner hopes that this current crop of Armagh players don’t fall back into their shell this Sunday in Clones by consistently attacking the Derry defenders.
“I always remember Seán Boylan telling me once that if you’re going to make mistakes, make them in the opposition’s full-back line. That means kick it in early and move the ball fast,” said the All-Ireland winning manager.
“We have the men inside in Rian (O’Neill), Conor Turbet and Andrew Murnin that can do damage and I hope they take the shackles off on Sunday and Armagh play the game on their terms. That means they need to stay inside.
“That then leaves 12 men in our own half defending . . . and if you can’t put a hand on someone when you have 12 in your own half, then someone is not working hard enough. Most of all that leaves space for our forwards inside.
“I just hope we see lads playing off the cuff on Sunday . . . playing off the cuff is what makes great and inspirational players.”
However, looking towards the opposition, Kernan worries about Derry’s overall experience and past glories.
“There are players on this Derry side that have won Ulster and All-Ireland minor, they’ve won U-20 titles, they’ve won Ulster club titles. We in Armagh don’t have that and the confidence and belief you get from those matches, helps you in these bigger games, that’s my only worry in facing Derry.”
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