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Kevin McKernan planning to set Kilcoo a stern test

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In safe hands: Kevin McKernan hopes a fresh face at the helm of Down will bring the county good fortune in the future

In safe hands: Kevin McKernan hopes a fresh face at the helm of Down will bring the county good fortune in the future

In safe hands: Kevin McKernan hopes a fresh face at the helm of Down will bring the county good fortune in the future

Back on May 24, Kevin McKernan wore the look of a haunted man as he filed out of the Pairc Esler dressing rooms.

Tyrone had beaten Down in the replayed preliminary round of Ulster. McKernan was whistled for a foul after minimal contact with Ronan McNabb as Niall McKenna squared across the goal. Penalty. Step forward Peter Harte to nail it.

With that backdrop, McKernan declined interviews after, adding: "I might say something I regret."

Asked about it now, he expands on a certain frustration with his county career.

"We have always been the nearly men of Down and it's something we don't like and something we want to improve upon.

"I am still enjoying my football, but when you are not seeing success it can be hard to see the positives."

The genial Burren man is not a sore loser though defeat gets on his bones, no question. But the beauty of this sport is your club life can bear no relationship to county fortunes, and so he faces another county final tomorrow at the same venue, against Kilcoo (throw-in 4.00pm).

Between them, they have carved up the last five Down Championships. Last year, Kilcoo nudged past them by two points. It's a tasty pairing.

McKernan was at the 'Big Breakfast' fundraiser at the Burren clubrooms last Saturday. With the under-14s, under-16s, minors and seniors all getting to county finals, it takes money to run the club, but the community uniting is also joyful.

It is this devotion to the club that has prompted a career change for the 26-year-old. Taking charge of underage sessions planted a seed some time ago and while he was happy working for his father Brendan – himself a member of the Down All-Ireland winning team of 1991 – as an electrician, teaching appealed to him.

Now he is in his second year of teacher training at St Mary's. His placement was with a P4 class in Ballyholland. It brings its own rewards.

"I wasn't happy with what I was doing and coaching at football made me realise what kind of effect you can have on children. When you are in a classroom you can have an even greater effect, more so than football," he explains.

"I suppose I was happy working away but when you see the way the trades are going now, you have to say it's not great."

He is quick to admit that teaching is less stressful on the body than going up and down ladders all day and it is a trend replicated across the Down panel. Benny Coulter hung up his building trowel some years ago for a coaching job with the county board, likewise Mark Poland who was a plasterer.

McKernan continues: "It's something I enjoy, working with children. It was always something I wanted to do and maybe football was masking everything.

"When everything was going well in 2010 and 2011 with Down, winning Championships with the club, everything else gets sidetracked."

That summer of 2010 brought him an All-Ireland final and an All-Star. On the club front, they took the county Championship in 2010 and 2011 under Frank Dawson, losing the 2011 Ulster club final to Crossmaglen.

Paddy Carr, the All-Ireland winning manager with Kilmacud Crokes from 2009, has been Burren manager for the last two seasons. They have lost players to injury and emigration but still, they keep on moving on.

Carr has been forced to fast-track a few minors. Doesn't matter. Burren have shown their pedigree in making it back to another showpiece day.

The pairing has the added spice of Jim McCorry planted on the opposition sideline. In the coming weeks, McKernan expects to meet him as the new Down manager. It will feel strange without his clubmate James McCartan in charge.

"He was the one who really gave me my chance and I played probably my best football under him. He is someone I grew up looking up to. Within our club he was red and black through and through and you loved playing for him," he recalls.

"It will be very different, but a fresh voice and a new approach worked well in 2010, so hopefully it can be the same."

At the start of McCartan's reign, he was boosted by the return from Aussie Rules of Martin Clarke. Now, Clarke is on his way back along with another graduate of Collingwood, Caolan Mooney.

McKernan spells out the lift they could give Down.

"(In) 2013 we played Donegal (in an Ulster semi-final) and there was only two points in it. Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden kicked two points from over 50 yards.

"They are the type of players who get you over the line and when you see the All-Ireland final the past couple of years it has been the big-time players.

"When we had the two boys coming out of minor level, the county were pinning their hopes on them. We haven't had them for the guts of five or six years.

"With the level of training they had over there, they are bound to be in good nick and hopefully have a bit of hunger for the Down jersey. It can all be good with the new manager and the two boys."

A veteran of the International Rules series, McKernan has not attended trials yet, preferring instead to dedicate himself to Burren. County and country aside, this is a very local rivalry and he knows where everyone's priorities lie come tomorrow.

"It's Kilcoo versus Burren and I am sure Jim McCorry will be doing his best for Kilcoo before he goes anywhere. We will not be thinking any different, we will be preparing the same.

"There is no better way to test yourself than against the benchmark of Down which they have been for the last two years. You know the history of each club and you are looking to claim the bragging rights."

With that focus, the woes of early summer melt into the ether. There's nothing like a county final.

Belfast Telegraph