The Iceberg Effect: When an act of greatness is witnessed without the observer realising the effort which has been expended in preparation to make the act possible.
Joe Kernan was prepared. He had his loser’s plaque. His friend and Armagh businessman Eamonn Mackle had purchased an All Ireland winners medal at auction (there were none in Armagh to be borrowed as the county had never won a senior football All Ireland). The players entered the half-time dressing room four points down. Time for an act of greatness…
‘Big Joe’ took over a team of nearly men at the end of the 2001 season. Armagh had won Ulster titles in 1999 and 2000 but had been beaten in All Ireland semi-finals in both of those seasons – the second of those defeats came against Kerry after extra time in a reply in 2000, when Armagh had led the first encounter by a point going into injury time. Armagh were dispatched by Galway in a third round qualifier in the 2001 Championship, which gave the sense that the window of opportunity for Armagh’s Crossmaglen inspired team had passed. Kernan saw it differently. After all, they had only been beaten by a point against Galway, who went on to win the All Ireland. This side still had potential.
Kernan took the job as Armagh’s manager on the understanding that any reasonable request he made of the County Board would be accepted. He felt he had to make sure that not only was their set up as good as a Kerry, Cork or Dublin but that it would be even better than rival counties. In addition to the strength & conditioning, statistics and video analysis aspects that were becoming the norm at the top end of the inter-county scene, Kernan also introduced two sport psychologists as part of his backroom team.
A month before the Championship was due to start, Kernan managed to persuade the County Board to agree to his plan to take the entire panel for a week of warm weather training at the La Manga complex in Spain. Warm weather training had become an acceptable standard at elite level in sports such as soccer and cycling but was a considerable departure for a GAA side. Armagh held two sessions per day during the training week, which remained an alcohol free excursion at all times and flew back ready for action.
A third Ulster final in three years was secured and after defeating Sligo following a replay in the All Ireland quarter final, Armagh found themselves back in the All Ireland semi final, this time against Dublin. Level at 0-06 to 0-06 at the interval, Kernan produced the shirt he had worn as a player against Dublin in the 1977 All Ireland final – the message to the players was simple – if you want one of these for yourselves, the only way to get it is to win this match. Armagh won by a point.
In preparation for the final, Kernan’s backroom team had contacted Muhammad Ali’s representatives in the hope of securing a letter wishing the squad the best of luck. A letter duly arrived and a copy was pushed under the door of each player’s hotel room door on the morning of the final. Armagh had played the inspirational dressing room speech of Al Pacino’s American Football coach character, Tony D’Amato, from the film ‘Any Given Sunday’ on the team coach as they arrived at matches during the 2002 Championship season. The scene in the film with Al Pacino’s ‘Sharks’ side looking hopelessly lost as he prepares to deliver his ‘inch by inch’ speech must have been reflected in the Armagh dressing room at half time in the final as they trailed Kerry by 0-11 to 0-07 at the break.
However, Joe Kernan had covered this eventuality. He showed the players his loser’s plaque from the 1977 final – a nice memento but a representation of defeat nonetheless. He wanted more for his players. He hurled the plaque against the wall and produced the winners medal that had been acquired – a winners medal is what the players wanted, not a plaque. It was up to them to go back out and get that medal. A four point deficit was turned into a one point victory and Armagh secured their first senior All Ireland football title.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”, Benjamin Franklin once said (of course this was paraphrased by a wise Corkman during the Saipan incident) – Joe Kernan understood this implicitly. He had spent the season conditioning not only his players physically but also instilling the mental toughness required to win an All Ireland. With a plaque and a medal, he gave his side the final push they needed to reach the summit.
David Sheehan, Pundit Arena.