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All Ireland Football Championship: McKernan ready to embrace Down's Croke Park experience

By Micheal McGeary

College stars don’t always make the transition to county status.

But 22-year-old Kevin McKernan is a notable exception.

Five seasons ago he enjoyed MacRory and Hogan Cup glory with Abbey CBS.

Come Sunday afternoon he’ll be lining out for Down against Cork in the All-Ireland football decider before a full house in Croke Park.

It’s a scenario that would deter some young players but McKernan is determined to embrace the occasion.

There’s been all the usual to-ing and fro-ing and sorting out family and friends with tickets.

But despite all the inevitable hype there’s little danger of the Burren clubman losing sight of the bigger picture.

“There’s still a game to be won and that’s my whole focus,” he said.

“It’s vital that we enjoy the occasion and embrace it. It’s for days like these that we play football.

“It’s all about keeping our feet on the ground and realising there’s work to be done.”

For a 22-year-old he’s remarkably mature and unlikely to need any advice.

But should the need arise he only has to turn to his father Brendan, an All-Ireland medal winner with the county in 1991 on a Down side captained by his club colleague Paddy O’Rourke.

“I think he can sit back and enjoy it much more now than back then,” he says.

“The pressure’s off so he can relax and take in the whole occasion. He always wishes me good luck when I’m heading off with Down, but he wouldn’t be a man for roaring and shouting.”

The younger McKernan has possibly suffered in the past because of his versatility, moving with relative ease from half backs to half forwards.

Against Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final he showed the forwards how it’s done when driving forward from half-back to land two superb points.

Their importance cannot be overstated coming at a stage when the game was still very much in the melting pot.

“I was just thrilled to get playing the last day against Kildare,” he said. “When you get the ball in your hands you just want to show people what you can do with it.

“Against Kildare the opportunity just arose. I could envisage the space opening up in front of me and I just had a go and fortunately they went over.”

Pitted against Eamon Callaghan, one of Kildare’s dangermen, he appeared under pressure early on, but from the moment he hit the target with those two crucial scores he never looked back.

For Down gaining momentum has always been the key to building the type of confidence they thrive on. But if McKernan ever believes they are getting ahead of themselves he only has to cast his mind back to their departure from the 2009 qualifiers and the empty feeling he was left with.

“I can recall walking out of Aughrim that day. We couldn’t get out fast enough such was the volume of traffic,” he said.

“We were left sitting in the car park. It was a very lonely place.

“We couldn’t even sit in the bus such was the sweltering heat that fateful afternoon. We were under no illusions that Wicklow were a good side, but that day we let ourselves down badly in that for whatever reason we simply didn’t play up to scratch.”

In some respects the embarrassment of that defeat has since been used as a motivational tool in Down’s stunning resurgence.

Victory over Cork would be another huge step in the county’s rehabilitation and the chance to finally bury the memory of Aughrim when Down football slumped to one of its lowest ebbs.

But just over a year later Down have the opportunity to write another chapter into their glorious and well-documented history.

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