Trading places

David Bentley and Aaron Kernan in their adopted clubs' strips
David Bentley and Aaron Kernan in their adopted clubs’ strips

David Hennessy spoke to Aaron Kernan and David Bentley, the GAA player and former Premiership player, who swapped sports for a new documentary that also saw Kilkenny’s Jackie Tyrell try baseball and Major League Baseball star Brian Schneider train with James Stephens.

David Bentley played in the Premier League for Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur. He also played for England and former England manager Steve McLaren once dubbed him the next Beckham. He retired in 2014 saying he had fallen out of love with the game. He joined Crossmaglen Rangers for The Toughest Trade.

“They play the sport because they love it,” David tells The Irish World. “They don’t play for financial rewards, which is great, it’s humbling. It’s great what they’re doing and the sense of community and family they have, honestly it was a real pleasure to be a part of that. It seems like the whole of Ireland has that sort of mentality and. I really enjoyed it. It was great.

“It was the fundamentals of what sport is. They’ve got their traditions and loyalty and their commitment and the enjoyment and the hard work. It’s everything that for me, soccer was. That was what I played for when I was a kid. Obviously the circus that surrounds football now has taken that away a little bit. It’s a lot more than that now.

David believes soccer has been "poisoned" and enjoyed the Toughest Trade experience that brought him back to his roots
David believes soccer has been “poisoned” and enjoyed the Toughest Trade experience that brought him back to his roots

“Professional football’s very intense and it’s lives and livelihoods on the line all the time. It was great to be part of the old school. I would imagine that’s what football was, what they’ve got here: The commitment and the enjoyment and playing together with the local lads, it’s probably what years ago football was.

“The money and everything has really poisoned that sort of side of things. It’s difficult. When these big organisations take over football clubs and the players are coming in and out from all over the world, it’s hard to have that sense of community that you experience over here. I enjoyed it, it took me back to my roots: Seeing sport played for the reasons of wanting to play sport.

“I respect everything they do: The balance of doing a job, the family life plus trying to perform at an elite level.

“The people were great, I mean they really accepted me, took me in and looked after me. It was a great experience.

“The Irish people, you just have a great way about you. I love spending time with you and I’ve been lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time in Ireland. Honestly, the people there are great. Always see a happy face, always got a story to tell, I enjoy my time in Ireland always.”

Asked if he has any Irish blood himself, the former England international says: “Apparently I do. I’m not too sure but I hope I do. It would be nice if I did actually. It would be nice if there was a little bit of Irish in me. I feel like there is anyway.”

David has been invited back to Crossmaglen and tells The Irish World it’s an invite he intends to take up.

And what is next? “Maybe I’ll turn my hand to hurling.”

Aaron found life as a professional was not as cosy as we may think
Aaron found life as a professional was not as cosy as we may think

Aaron Kernan plays for Crossmaglen Rangers and formerly for the Armagh county team. A half back, Aaraon has won seven AIB GAA Ulster Club Championships and 3 AIB GAA All-Ireland Club Championships. With Armagh, he has won 4 Ulster Championships, 2 league titles and an All-Ireland U-21 title with the Orchard County. Aaron trained with Sunderland to get a taste of Premiership life

Aaron tells The Irish World: “For me, it was a great opportunity. You are going to find out for sure whether you are fit for professional life and all that goes with it. It was an opportunity that I just couldn’t say no to.”

Did representing GAA players in such an environment have Aaron feeling any pressure? “I did. Initially, you say, ‘we’ll go ahead with this’ but going over to Sunderland, I was sort of saying: ‘Now, you need to give a good reflection of the GAA. To hold up this campaign we speak of (The Toughest Trade), you’re going to have to perform to your maximum.’

“I was nervous going into a professional environment where the players didn’t know anything about me personally and probably the whole lot of them didn’t know anything about the sport that I was coming from but I have to say as soon as I arrived, the first person up to me was John O’Shea with a welcome. He spoke a bit about his time playing GAA back home in Waterford and made me feel really welcome. From then on, I settled in really well.”

“I think that’s something that I appreciated out of it, we tend to think the money they get that everything else just falls in place but once I got involved in the whole dynamics of how everything’s laid out, they’re long days for those guys, they’re 9 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the evening almost every day where they’re just going from one activity to another. Granted, everything is laid out for them, everything is there for them to maximise themselves as best they can but it still has all it’s own pressures that come with it.”

Aaron trained with the Under 21s at Sunderland as the first team had to rest: “The squad I was involved with, they all knew they were fighting for their lives to get a full time professional contract. Maybe we just think they would automatically think, ‘I’m going to make it’ or even ‘I have made it at this stage’. The whole lot of them were grounded enough to know that they had a serious work load ahead of them in order to convince the Sunderland coaches to bring them on which psychologically is a big burden to be carrying around with you.”

Aaron pays credit to David for his commitment to training with an amateur team and also taking on Aaron’s job as an estate agent: “For me, it was all perks. It was all me going into a better environment. For him, what business really had he going home to slog it out in the muck of Crossmaglen to try and take up a sport that he’d hardly heard of?

“If I have a bad day at work, going to training is a release where I can park whatever happens off the field. If football’s not going that well, at least I’m away at work all the next day. That helps us keep a clearer mind. As a professional, you don’t get it because every day, you have something to do, somewhere to be and someone to answer to.

The Toughest Trade is an AIB initiative, and the latest film from the #TheToughest campaign in support of the AIB GAA Club Championships. The hour long documentary was produced by the IFTA award winning Motive Television and will be available on the AIB YouTube channel from Sunday March 15. 

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