In the spring of 2002 Joe Kernan and his logistics manager Eamon Mackle discussed the outrageous possibility of a warm-weather training camp. As a management team they were new, and bold. By the middle of the decade all of the top teams had embraced the practice, but whoever did it first would be branded as punks. It reeked of professionalism or one-upmanship or sharp practice or something indefinably dare-devil. They didn’t care.
Kernan asked Mackle how much it would cost and he didn’t have a figure yet. They bounced it off Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane, the two most powerful figures in the Armagh dressing room, and after their first rush of enthusiasm they wondered about the cost too. “Boys, don’t worry about the money,” Kernan said to them. “That’s Eamon’s problem.”
A day later Mackle booked 42 seats on a plane to Alicante. All-in, the cost of the trip amounted to €30,000. He told the travel agent that he’d return with the money in a couple of days. The county board was still unaware of the scheme.
In La Manga, three sessions a day were scheduled: on the field, in the gym, in the analysis room. Not a drop of alcohol passed their lips. To stimulate the Armagh free-takers, Kernan arranged a clinic with Dave Alred. By then, Jonny Wilkinson was Alred’s most famous client, but his techniques were portable, from rugby to golf to soccer. Nobody in the GAA had ever considered him.
Only a few months earlier Armagh had arrived late for their qualifier match against Galway in Croke Park. After their warm-up at the Na Fianna grounds in Glasnevin, their Garda escort had failed to materialise. As they crawled through traffic for three tortuous kilometres, the players stewed in silence on the bus. The throw-in was delayed. Armagh were in a daze for 50 minutes. Galway won. How far were Armagh from winning the All-Ireland? Only dreamers would have indulged a guess.
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Their trip to La Manga was bound to generate blow-back and traces of ridicule. One Belfast GAA writer suggested they would have been better off making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Tyrone were waiting in the first round of the championship. Overnight, Armagh had grown into a tall poppy.
La Manga wasn’t make-or-break: it was an emblem of their thinking and their determination to break boundaries. Kernan’s vision was for a training environment bristling with best practice, from wherever he could source it. They were prepared to take risks. Why not? Everything tried before had failed already.
“We were criticised at the time for going to La Manga,” says Stevie McDonnell now, “but it didn’t take long for other teams to catch on. Hot-weather training camps became the normal thing for teams to do. We knew, at the time, that teams were trying to replicate what we were doing – not just with that.”
Between theory and practice stood the players. It was a tripartite arrangement. Kernan and his lieutenants had no business bringing new ideas to closed minds. They knew their audience.
In that climate, all kinds of things grew. A few years ago, the author and journalist Niall McCoy traced the post-playing careers of the 30 members of the All-Ireland winning panel from 2002. What he discovered was staggering: 25 of them had turned to coaching, in one capacity or another. By last year, when McCoy wrote Kings For A Day, his terrific account of that Armagh team, the influence of those players had been felt across a dozen counties, at all levels of the game.
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It is hard to think of another All-Ireland winning team that has made such a giant footprint on the GAA landscape. At the start of another intercounty season, McGeeney is still the Armagh manager, Tony McEntee is continuing with Sligo, Oisin McConville is starting out with Wicklow and Aidan O’Rourke is the new head coach with Donegal, his fifth role with a senior inter county team. On another track, Paul McDermott is manager of the Louth senior hurlers. In total, 13 of them have taken a role at intercounty level.
Was all of this obvious when they shared a dressing room? Who thinks that far ahead? Looking back, though, you wonder how much they were shaped by each other, and by that shared time in their lives? What were the dynamics of a group with so many strong wills and restless minds? How did it work? Who made it work?
For a start, Kernan and his assistant Paul Grimley allowed them to breathe. They understood that this arrangement needed to be a partnership. They gave them space. John McEntee says that they “empowered” the players, which, 20 years ago, would have been an enlightened approach in a GAA dressing room. Grimley said that they developed the practice of leaving the players on their own for “10 or 15 minutes” before big matches, and making themselves scarce.
“At half-time in matches, they trusted the players a lot of the time too,” says McDonnell. “Not all of the time, but if things weren’t going particularly well, they trusted the players to deal with the situation among ourselves.”
“Joe wanted the players to take ownership,” says McEntee, “not just of what happened on the field but what happened off the field. Taking responsibility for yourself, but sometimes taking responsibility for your teammates as well. Looking back now, it kind of feels like it was sowing the seeds for what the future held for us. When you went into management, it wasn’t entirely alien to you. You had a flavour of it, albeit in a protected space.”
Within the group there was a hierarchy. McGinley and McGrane were the head of government and head of state. If something needed to be communicated to Kernan and Grimley from a players’ meeting, they brought the message. According to one player, those meetings were sometimes “spicy.” For their part, the players lived in a tropical climate: heavy downpours, hot winds.
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“There was conflict,” says McDonnell. “Mainly at team meetings. If there was a point that people disagreed on, it would be ironed out and dealt with there and then. There was conflict in our training sessions. There were many, many times when there were fights in training, but it was part and parcel of us and the team that we were. Once we left the training field it was dealt with – it was simple, that was it. There was no falling out.”
Aaron Kernan arrived into this group as a young player in the autumn of 2003. Bedding-in involved an element of watchfulness. “There were so many strong personalities,” he says, “you wouldn’t open your mouth for years. You wouldn’t feel it was your place to add anything credible. You kept your head down and your mouth shut. Those players didn’t have to be led because they set so many high standards, and that sort of polices itself. It didn’t mean huge, intense meetings with management, setting out their stall. The players wanted this.
“Kieran [McGeeney] set the tone in terms of how he prepared. He didn’t accept any bullshit. He didn’t really accept any excuses and you wouldn’t die wondering how he felt if you asked the wrong question or did the wrong thing. Standards were high, but sure they needed to be high. I came into a team that had just been in two All-Ireland finals in a row.”
The demands they made on themselves were projected onto the management too. Before Joe Kernan took over, Armagh had won two Ulster titles under the joint management of Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan, their first provincial titles in nearly 20 years. And yet, at the end of 2001, the board pushed against them, without any resistance from the players.
“We had done relatively well by Armagh standards in the late 90s, and yet it wasn’t good enough because we hadn’t won an All-Ireland,” says McEntee. “The two Brians, even after winning two Ulsters in-a-row (1999 and 2000), were replaced by Joe. The attitude among the players was, ‘Listen, what we’re doing is not good enough – we need to do better.’ Joe was there for six years and, like everything, his time came to an end as well. Part of that was maybe some influence from the players.
“I don’t want to paint a picture that there was conflict with the management all the time, there wasn’t. But in some way we used conflict to help drive high performance.”
In his career after football Enda McNulty became one of the leading performance coaches in the country, in sport and in business. His portfolio of clients over the years included the Leinster and Irish rugby teams, as well as a host of GAA teams and individual athletes. His second book on leadership, Commit 2 Lead, will be published next month, and he has flourished in this arena. Some of the things he did towards the end of his Armagh career, though, he would counsel his clients against now. In that febrile environment, everyone was pushing.
“I regret, that in some cases, I would have pushed too hard [in asking questions of the management],” he says. “Towards the end of my career, I definitely pushed too hard, no doubt about that. I probably asked big questions where, in hindsight, I wasn’t as diplomatic as I should have been.”
What consistently energised the group, though, was innovation. Kernan was a master of looking outside and importing something that could be adapted. In 2002, for example, they enlisted Darren O’Neill, a basketball coach. His talent was to break down other teams and identify patterns. In McNulty’s position in the full-back line there was value in knowing how his opponent liked to receive the ball and what runs he favoured. O’Neill devised what would now be called heat maps. The information would be communicated simply, with Xs on a piece of paper, but the message was clear.
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“All I had to do at half-time,” says McNulty, “was give him a nod and he’d come over. ‘Don’t give him any space here, close him down here.’ Just magnificent. Innovation was applied in a way that could significantly help your performance.”
Kernan kept searching. A year after they went to La Manga, the Armagh players were brought to Bath Rugby club. Shaun Edwards, one of the most successful defence coaches in rugby, got them thinking about the tackle as a two-man operation: the first contact to stop the player in possession, the second contact to strip the ball. It was different and insightful and practical.
Armagh filmed some of their training sessions. They worked on the mechanics of running with John McCloskey. They embraced the gym as a season-long module of their training, and not just a winter pursuit. Twenty years ago, none of these things were common practice.
Very quickly, Kernan assembled a greater management team that included 16 people, across a range of disciplines. They had two sports psychologists when most teams didn’t have one; Hugh Campbell and Des Jennings worked in tandem. In McGeeney’s long career in management with Kildare and Armagh, Campbell has been with him for every season. McGeeney is a tough audience but that was the impact Campbell made.
One year they brought in Billy Dixon. His background was working with politicians and one of his areas of speciality was body language. For a team that traded so heavily on aggression and physical power, this theatre of combat was non-contact. Aaron Kernan loved it.
“Body language was massive,” he says. “It was something that has stuck with me forever. How you go onto the field, how you act in times of pressure, what way you hold yourself. Never letting your opponent know that you were tired. Never letting him know you how you really felt. If you went up the pitch and kicked a point, you sprinted back, even if your lungs were burning inside.”
For the Armagh players in that group who had a mind to coach it is impossible to quantify how much they were influenced by that environment, and impossible to believe that they weren’t affected by it. They were constantly challenged to think differently and respond to new stimuli and to never stop wondering how they could be better. As coaches in later life, that was the bar. *
During that period, Armagh won six Ulster titles in eight years, and one All-Ireland. When they had never won an All-Ireland in their history, one felt like a lot at first. Over time, that feeling came under siege.
They get together every so often, and they were in each other’s company again a few months ago. McNulty found himself at the bar with his great friend Diarmuid Marsden, re-threading a conversation they have had many times before.
“We knew at the time,” says McNulty, “that what we had was unique. That we had a once-in-a-lifetime group of leaders in the changing room, and that we had some incredibly talented players. We knew that. We also had a huge sense of, ‘Let’s maximise this time together.’ I can’t speak on behalf of my team mates, but I definitely have a huge sense of unfinished business.
“It’s part of what drives me today. I have a sense of I could have and should achieved much more as a player and now I’m still playing catch-up. At this hour of my life, I’m ok with that vulnerability. I achieved about a quarter of what I wanted to achieve. It drives me. I was up at six o’clock this morning getting ready for work with a global management team [with Acceleron in Zurich] and I think if I’d won five or six All-Irelands, I might be a little bit soft.”
The crusades continue.