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Pre-Championship Chat night: GAA stars share their views

By Diarmúid Pepper

On Thursday night, esteemed members of the GAA world came to St Joseph’s High School to talk about the upcoming Ulster Championship whilst raising money for the school’s Cambodian Humanity Trip.

The Examiner spoke to the four guests, who were Benny Tierney, Aaron Kernan, Dan McCartan, and Joe Brolly. 

When asked about the advice he would give to youngsters who want to make it to the very top in GAA, Benny Tierney said it was first and foremost about enjoying what you do.

Benny said: “I suppose the biggest thing I’d say is to enjoy it. I always enjoyed the football. Kieran McGeeney was very driven, driven in every aspect, I tended to – I was very competitive don’t get me wrong – but I wanted to enjoy it as well and the enjoyment levels of it for me; whether it’s school or football or just general life, it’s very important. 

“If you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point in doing it. There has to be a semblance of fun, a bit of laughter, and then you can get serious. School is all about that too; I find that if children are enjoying a class, they will do twice as much for you.

“It’s the same as football; if you’re enjoying what you are doing, you give your manager more and you give more commitment. That would be my outlook.”

When asked who he fancies for the upcoming Ulster Championship, Tierney said: “I fancy Tyrone but I would like to be proven wrong on that. I think Armagh will definitely beat Down. I think Armagh are trying to be more positive and attacking, even though the game has maybe gone the other way. But I still think we’re a wee bit off the top tier.”

Local GAA star Aaron Kernan spoke to The Examiner about his storied career with Crossmaglen Rangers and about what it is that drives his passion for the sport. 

“I have to say, my passion for the sport hasn’t dwindled at all. Even looking around our squad this year, literally everyone I started out playing with at underage are all gone at this stage. But I’m still as hungry as ever. 

“I don’t know where that comes from. It’s probably just something that was ingrained in me, a passion that was developed from seeing successful teams in our club as I was growing up; winning county titles and All-Irelands, it was always something I dreamed of doing.”

Given that everyone he started off with has left, Aaron feels like an almost father-figure, who wants to guide the younger members of the squad to become better people as well as better footballers. 

“I am enjoying it now as much as I ever did, and I probably feel a sense of responsibility because I feel that football has given me so much enjoyment and I got to see so much of the world. 

“I see it as a responsibility that I need to do all I can to help the next generation coming through because I know I was fortunate to have a lot of really good footballers, but even better people, put an arm around me. They helped me along with my development so it’s just my turn to do the same. So that keeps you fresh and makes it enjoyable because you feel like you’re making a difference.”

When asked who he tips for the Ulster, his answer was the same as Benny’s: “I think Tyrone will win it; they had a slow start to the national league but they have turned around a lot, so I see them as favourites.”

And like Benny, he sees Armagh overcoming Down when the sides meet. He said: “Armagh, I fancy us to beat Down even though I think it will be a tough battle. My heart says I would love to see them in an Ulster Final against Tyrone, but my head says that they will end up meeting Monahan in an ulster semi-final and Monahan will have just a wee bit too much cuteness for them.

“We wouldn’t fear Monaghan at all but I think we might be just a year too soon for them in order to topple them. But getting back to an Ulster Final has to be the goal for this team in the next few years because we have a lot of top players coming through. In particular, we have a really good forward line, which not a lot of counties have. Thankfully we have that, because they’re really the men that get you the titles and get you across the line in the big games.”

Down native Dan McCartan also found it difficult to look beyond Tyrone, but he thinks Donegal will be in the reckoning too, and foresees Monaghan being hard to beat as well. 

“I hope Down do well, I’m a Down man, but realistically it looks like Tyrone or Donegal will be the ones to beat in Ulster. Monaghan have lost a few players, and they are always dark horses, but to be honest with you, you are hard pressed to see beyond Donegal or Tyrone at the moment.”

Joe Brolly made the trip all the way from Dungiven to Crossmaglen to lend a helping hand for the charity event, and he spoke in glowing terms about the mentality and the character of Crossmaglen Rangers. 

“I think it’s the fact that they have stuck to their principles through thick and thin, and they appreciate that in the end, what is more important than anything else, is that it’s a game; a game to be savoured and enjoyed and I follow as many of their games as I can.

“I was there when they played Ballymacnab in the Championship Final this year and it was just a superb, thrilling game from start to finish. As you expect with Crossmaglen, they will attack you relentlessly. Even their game against Gweedore was superbly entertaining.”

Many bemoan the often negative tactics that are increasingly employed in Gaelic Football, but Brolly believes that Crossmaglen Rangers are always a breath of fresh air in a sport that he feels can often be stale: “At a time when the standard has deteriorated so much because of the robotic defensive football, Crossmaglen have been a constant enjoyment in Gaelic football.”