For GAA fans, matches aside, there are few things as riveting as a tour of the association’s hallowed HQ, Croke Park.
A tour of the stadium is accompanied by historic tales of iconic moments that have taken place at the Jones Road venue. If you are ever to experience the tour, one tale that is sure to come up is the story of Joe Kernan’s famous half-time speech in the 2002 All-Ireland final.
Having knocked on the door for a number of seasons, Kernan’s arrival provided Armagh with the platform to finally get over the line in Croke Park following harrowing defeats to eventual champions Meath, Kerry and Galway in the three years leading up to 2002.
Armagh defeated Kerry in the final, however, at half-time, things looked bleak for the Orchard County having missed a penalty. The story goes that Joe Kernan delivered a speech at half-time that has gone into GAA folklore after smashing his 1977 runners up medal in an attempt to get his team going.
Famed sports psychologist, Enda McNulty, was corner-back on that Armagh team and would ultimately win an All-Star later that year. Recounting in John Scally’s book: “Blood, Sweat, Tears & Triumph: Tales from the GAA”, McNulty gave an insider’s account of what happened inside that dressing room back in 2002.
“It hadn’t gone well in the first half but what hasn’t gone into folklore is that we started off well. Then Kerry had a period of dominance and Oisin [McConville] missed a penalty and we sort of went off the rails after that, but we finished well and went in at half-time trailing by only four points.
“I remember looking around the dressing room and thinking the mood in the team wasn’t unbelievably spirited and the body language wasn’t very strong.
“Joe came in and he started talking, ‘Listen boys, we aren’t playing well. I played in the 1977 All-Ireland final and I remember going home on the bus crying and with all the boys crying. Do ye want to fucking be like me?’
“It wasn’t really what he said next but the impact of him physically throwing his loser’s medal from that game against the shower and it rattling all over the wall, shattering into little pieces and the plastic breaking and the coin, or whatever it was, rolling all over the floor.”
McNulty recalls how Kernan’s actions ignited a spark among the players as Armagh went on to win the final on a scoreline of 1-12 to 0-14.
“I again vividly remember looking around and seeing the body language change immediately. Before that, everybody was sitting kind of slumped and suddenly everybody was sitting up as if we were all saying, ‘That’s not going to be us.’ To use a term from sports psychology, we all went up into a “peak state”. It was as if we were all saying to each other, ‘Jesus boys, we’re going to win this.’
“Then Kieran [McGeeney] brought us into a circle and you knew by looking into the boys’ eyes that everybody was ready for a battle. There were other games when you’d look into the boys’ eyes and you’d see a bit of uncertainty, but there was none at that stage.
“It was total euphoria when we won.”
That great Armagh side looked destined to repeat the feat in 2003 and collect a second All-Ireland title, however, they fell to rivals Tyrone in the first and only ever all-Ulster All-Ireland final.
McNulty claims to harbour a lot of regrets around 2003 and how Armagh decided to tweak a few aspects of their game, including their style of play after articles had been written in the media about how “over-the-top dirty” they were.
“There’s a lot of regrets about 2003. Probably, on reflection, we played better football in 2003 than we did in 2002 but we made a big mistake. Two weeks before the All-Ireland final, we changed a few critical things. We changed the way we played the whole year, which was a critical mistake. We picked some players in different positions, which was a big mistake in hindsight.
“I’ve spoken to Kieran about this, but even more importantly was the change in attitude. In all the games up to the final, we had a “take no shit” attitude. We got stuck in and used our physical strength, not in any dirty way, but harnessed the physical strength of the team: Francie Bellow, Kieran, the McEntees, Paul McGrane.
“In the run-up to the final, there were a lot of articles in the press saying that not only were Armagh a dirty team but over-the-top dirty. One of the articles stated that somebody was going to be left in a wheelchair because of the way we played. I remember reading that article, which was written by a Fermanagh player, and thinking to myself. ‘Oh dear, what’s going to happen if some of our players are affected by this?’
“We probably subconsciously decided not to be as physical as we were in the previous games, which was an absolute disaster. Against Tyrone in 2003, we decided we were going to show the whole country that we could win by playing nice football. We tried to play less tough football and more champagne football.”
Far from blaming just the management team, McNulty feels everyone must shoulder the blame for not adding to their All-Ireland haul during that golden era for the Orchard County.
“We could also have been more intelligent on the day, on the pitch – I’m not talking about management. For example, I was marking Peter Canavan, who wasn’t fit to walk and I marked him man to man. I should have come out in front of him and covered off Owen Mulligan as well. So I am taking the blame for my own performance. We must all shoulder the blame. I wouldn’t blame the management for any of our defeats.”