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McKernan follows in dad's footsteps in search of glory


By Declan Bogue

Back in mid-February, Kevin McKernan and his father Brendan clung tight to one another under a Mayo sky. Kevin finally had what he craved so badly - an elusive All-Ireland medal by virtue of St Mary's astonishing Sigerson Cup final win over UCD.

In that moment, Brendan would have known the value. He was a tight-marking corner-back in Pete McGrath's 1991 All-Ireland-winning Down side. An All-Ireland medal has an effect on a man's self-worth.

The two played together for half a season in 2005, partnering one another in midfield for Burren seconds when Kevin was still in the Abbey. Brendan was 41.

Within a year, Kevin had won a MacRory and Hogan Cup. Within five years, he played in an All-Ireland final, won an All-Star and proved to be one of Ireland's star performers in the International Rules series in Australia.

He might have thought Celtic Crosses were just round the corner. In the years after, he left his father's electrical contract business, entered academia with St Mary's and everything in his professional life was moving along nicely.

But on the pitch, Down lurched along, never recapturing the spirit of 2010.

Last year he found himself standing on the Pairc Esler turf scarcely able to believe it. His county had just gone a full season without a win in either the league or Championship, ending with defeat to Longford after extra-time.

Now, he can point out the underlying reason.

"It was a bad run of defeats. It was over two seasons and we went through two changes of management, which is not an easy thing to handle. If that happens to you in any walk of life, a change of management can change a whole lot of things," he said.

There was no consolation. But at least he knew that manager Eamonn Burns, his father's team-mate and a childhood hero, was hurting just as much as the players.

"Eamonn and his guys have put in a massive shift for two years," insisted McKernan.

"Those couple of defeats we had last year were heartbreaking for us, but they were heartbreaking for them too.

"We give up four or five nights a week travelling around Down to different club pitches to train and then end up taking those beatings. No one likes to see that happening.

"When Eamonn talks to us, we know how strong a guy mentally he is. He is very set in his ways."

In the way of it now, the group didn't just have poison pens to live with, but keyboards dripping with venom over the fate of Down football.

Something Ross Munnelly - an old team-mate from the International Rules - said recently about the changing nature of playing and managing at inter-county level struck a chord with McKernan.

"(They are) from a completely different era of 10-15 years ago when there were no smart phones, no social media really," McKernan stated. "It is completely different now and it is worrying where things can go, and it is going to come to a head somewhere because we are talking about guys who have to get up and go to work the following morning and you are faced with that."

Peak criticism was reached after the defeat away to Clare in the second league game.

"Inter-county football can be a very lonely place at times," said the 29-year-old.

"When a group of players come together and try to do their best and it is not going their way, anything that is pushing against it is magnified by a couple of bad defeats."

Burns took decisive action, enlisting the help of sports psychologist Brendan Hackett.

Fortunes immediately improved with a win over Meath based on power and commitment, and the players immediately looked like they were enjoying the game of football again.

It gave the long-suffering fans something to cheer about, and they went on to defeat Derry the following weekend and ultimately survived in Division Two, with their season coming down to the final play of their last game away to Cork.

On June 4 they delivered the first Championship win over Armagh since Brendan McKernan himself was playing.

"We talked about it in the weeks building up to it," said son Kevin. "That the onus was on us to get a result over Armagh. We wanted to do that for ourselves but we wanted to do it for the whole county too, because we had been waiting for 25 years to beat them and that is a long, long time. It has been tough but you could see what it meant at the end."

All that is small beer compared to what they have ahead of them in the Athletic Grounds this evening.

Monaghan are a battle-hardened outfit that have secured two Ulster titles in recent years under the clever management of Malachy O'Rourke.

One of their great strengths is their utter ruthlessness. When these two met in the Ulster quarter-final last year, Monaghan inflicted Down's worst-ever Championship defeat, 19 points in it at the final whistle.

However, McKernan denies that result will be playing on the minds of the Down stars.

"You can talk all day about last year but we have lost three or four players from the team that started that day and we have filtered new fellows in," he said. "Last year we were throwing four or five rookies in against Monaghan. Come the semi-final, you will see a far more settled team."

At present, Down are 4/1 to beat Monaghan, and 10/1 to win their province. Arguably, they are further away from a provincial title than when McKernan came on the scene under Ross Carr and DJ Kane's management.

"Only one team wins the All-Ireland, only one team gets to win Ulster," he conceded.

"We are hoping, year after year, that we can pick a pocket somewhere along the line."

If any team can, it would be Down.

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