Joe Kernan: ‘I think Diarmuid Connolly could be missed’
Former Armagh manager believes Tyrone have the wherewithal to really test Dublin
Joe Kernan: the former Armagh player and manager was announced as a 2018 inductee into the GAA Museum Hall of Fame at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Joe Kernan, gently blending his sense of wonder and praise and envy for Mickey Harte. In the now 15 years since sharing the sideline on All-Ireland football final day, Kernan has reason to feel this far apart.
Here’s the scene: it’s 2003, and a year after guiding Armagh to their first All-Ireland, in his first year as manager, Kernan is facing a Tyrone team who under Harte, in his first year as manager, is trying to win their first. It’s breathlessly tight throughout, before Tyrone win by three points.
Now with Harte preparing to bring Tyrone back to Croke Park on Sunday, 15 years after that first final win, 10 years after his last, the 2005 victory in between, Kernan is reflecting in another sense too, the latest inductee into the GAA Hall of Fame: his six seasons as Armagh manager yielded that single All-Ireland, in 2002, but he also guided his club Crossmaglen Rangers to three All-Ireland titles in four years, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers never to win an All-Ireland on the field of play.
“We know we should have won one more, and that’s something we have to live with now,” admits Kernan, before promptly adding how special 2002 will always be.
“To have none you’d feel an awful lot worse. To say we should have got more that’s a definite, but the fact that we got there in 2002 was one of the greatest memories of all our lives.”
All of which makes Tyrone’s quest for a fourth All-Ireland under Harte, 15 years after their first, so unique.
“It is phenomenal, what he’s done, and he’s kept changing his backroom team, kept freshening it up, which is what you have to do. And Mickey still seems to have that drive. I know myself there’s comes the stage where if you haven’t the drive, the players know it, but the players obviously feel he still has it in him.”
Sunday’s challenge, says Kernan, is a lot different from 2003, not least in trying to halt Dublin’s quest for four in a row.
“The players Dublin have, everything they’ve done, nearly seems faultless. The one thing I’d say is they haven’t performed to a high level consistently, and maybe they are saving the best wine oil the end.
“But Tyrone have certainly learned from last year. There will be a bit of cat and mouse in it, but there is something about Tyrone, an eagerness and an anger about them this year, and they seem better equipped to last 70 minutes. If they don’t give away goals early on I think they can cause problems.”
Lasting that 70 minutes, however, is the big challenge for Tyrone. Kernan reckons Tyrone lack the sheer attacking force of the 2003 All-Ireland-winning team, and their best chance of beating Dublin will be coming somewhere from behind.
“The work rate, the fitness levels, they will be on a par with Dublin. They are all mobile and athletic, but scores win matches and that’s what it comes down to. And not giving away silly scores, like they did last year when the game was over after 15 minutes.
“So I think Tyrone have set up differently. They have become more attack-minded, but from the start they have to put the main man, which is Stephen Cluxton, under pressure, so he doesn’t get easy kick-outs, and that means they have to push up and mark from the outside in. Then the ball goes down the middle and that’s a scrap then.
“If they can frustrate Dublin, they’ll make mistakes, and they won’t be able to play with the same calmness that they normally do, which is one thing that has stood to Dublin. But are they able to put Dublin under that pressure? Will they stick to it and if they do break up a Dublin attack, will they have men in there that will be able to take scores?”
There is always the threat Dublin can cut loose on the day. They’ve won their last five All-Ireland titles (2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017) by a combine total of seven points, their last proper rampage in a final being the 1977 All-Ireland final against Armagh, where Kernan scored 2-1, but was still on the end of a 12-point loss, 5-12 to 3-6.
Kernan believes Dublin could miss Dermot Connolly.
“Have Dublin played their best football this year yet? I don’t think so. Is there more in them? Privately, Jim Gavin would love to have him, but unfortunately he doesn’t. He was the one man who came on this last three or four years and made a difference. Other boys came on and got a few scores but Connolly took two and three men to mark him. There is nobody of that calibre going to come off the bench, that’s going to take up two or three men to mark him.
“Have Tyrone a chance? Yes. Can Tyrone put them under enough pressure that Dublin can’t play the game? I think they can. If they don’t get off to a bad start, they can make it interesting. Then if it gets interesting we’ll see who breaks, who gets the score to turn the game or who gets the block on to save the game.”
Ultimately Kernan hints at a Dublin victory, as he reels off a few more aces up Dublin’s sleeve.
“Tyrone have to mark Ciarán Kilkenny. Cluxton is number one, he is number two. Then you have the two Rolls Royce around the middle of the field in Brian Fenton and Brian Howard – I think he is exceptional.
“It is getting harder for Dublin, to keep this going and going. The five-in-a-row is what they dream of, but they have to win this first to have chance of it.”
The latest hurling induction in the Hall of Fame is Limerick’s Leonard Enright, who like Kernan never won an All-Ireland, losing the 1980 final too Galway. But he did win three All Star awards as an outstanding full back.