Having played in the same era, I was aware of Kevin as an emerging talent. He was razor-sharp in front of goal, deceptively strong and had an air of confidence rarely seen in the saffron jersey.
Having got to know him over the years, I can say he's a forthright, upstanding individual - a nice guy, if you like. But don't let the smile disguise the fact that he's a man who knows what he is about on and off the GAA pitch.
Kevin has a clear idea of how he wants Gaelic football to be played and his biggest strength as a coach is that he has no problem articulating that.
Mickey Harte is known for being a shrewd judge - and securing Kevin as a new Tyrone coach was perhaps his shrewdest acquisition of all...
Oisin: How has life changed for you in the last three months?
Kevin: It’s changed immeasurably. I work in Lisburn and after work I usually head straight to Garvaghy (Tyrone’s training ground) three, four or five days a week. I head home at 11pm and hit repeat. It can also be that way early Saturday and Sunday mornings, so there has been a massive lifestyle change. Life has slowed down completely.
Oisin: Has it been difficult for you and your family to adapt?
Kevin: It’s definitely not been hard to adapt. I have found it easy to enjoy the company of my wife Maria and the two girls. It’s good to get the chance to spend more time at home, even (with) the home schooling. Maria and I said at the beginning of the lockdown that we would not waste this precious family time.
Oisin: You were brought into the Tyrone coaching set-up this year. The lockdown must be incredibly frustrating in that regard?
Kevin: We were having a Jekyll and Hyde league. The McKenna Cup went the way we thought it would. With the panel of players we have, you expect to be winning those pre-season competitions. We entered the league without a lot of our big hitters. We were missing quite a few from the team which played Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final some months earlier. The Galway game obviously stands out for a lot of people, but I think we were more concerned with the injury to Cathal McShane than the result at the time. Also, I don’t think the result told the full story of that game, with us down to 13 and chasing the game. When it came to the Dublin game, it was more about restoring pride than anything else. We wanted to compete with them and we got a completely different performance to the Galway game. If you look at the difference with those performances, it’s pretty simple. The unforced errors were huge in the Galway game and vastly reduced against Dublin. It had to be (that way) because they are the benchmark.
Oisin: You are not just focusing on forwards but have a wider brief.
Kevin: Well, I had chatted to Mickey before I took the job. My remit would be to take all of the pitch sessions along with ‘Horse’ Devlin. If I was just a forwards coach, I would have a very short window during a training session and that wasn’t what I wanted. The sessions I like to do are about quality above quantity.
Oisin: Why did you accept a role from Tyrone?
Kevin: I had gone from playing to coaching with Glenullin, into the Derry senior set-up, then a couple of Derry club sides and, most recently, Creggan Kickhams. When I got the call from Mickey, I was thinking I would love the chance to work with a top-four inter-county side. Tyrone fitted the bill and the timing was right. It’s a very professional set-up. You just have to look at the physique of these guys to see the difference in the top teams and others.
Oisin: What is it like working with a great manager in Mickey Harte?
Kevin: It’s great to get the opportunity to work alongside Mickey. I went in with an open mind. I had no pre-conceived notions what he was like, having not known him that well. He has been Tyrone manager since 2003... 18 seasons. I suppose I wondered what his enthusiasm would be like and how he would be on the training pitch. His demeanour is naturally quiet, but he still has huge desire and he can still motivate the players. He knows how to have fun and has a wicked sense of humour, which many don’t see.
Oisin: Tyrone always seem to develop great talent and be one of the top teams in Ireland. Why?
Kevin: As an Antrim man, that is something which certainly interests me. One of the things I see is the lifestyle culture, then the level of conditioning and the desire to be a county footballer. It’s no longer a part-time gig. It’s 24/7 and, structurally and financially, the whole county puts its weight behind that. Off the back of three All-Irelands, the Garvaghy facility is aligned with anything you would get with a Premier League team. That’s something Antrim don’t have.
Oisin: Looking at your Antrim days, what are your greatest memories?
Kevin: Well, I made my debut against you boys in Armagh in 1996, scored 1-5 and we won. I was 18 then. We played Donegal in the championship that year. They were a seasoned team at that stage and they only beat us by two points. I came on and scored a wonder goal. We had good players then... Joe Quinn, Gearoid, Kevin Brady and Anto Finnegan. Donegal beat us again the following year, this time by three points. Brian White came in and we won the All-Ireland ‘B’ championship in 1999 and that bit of a run together had a big bearing on our performances in 2000. We beat Down in the first round and Derry beat us after a replay. I missed the Down game with a broken jaw and that was our first win in 18 years in the championship. It was disappointing missing that game because I had been top scorer in the country during the National League of 1998-99 and I was in great form. Then 2003 was also a very good year for us as we knew the importance of backing up what we had done three seasons prior. We beat Cavan in the first round and then played All-Ireland finalists Tyrone and Armagh (back door) in the space of six days. I think we ran you boys to three points. I had decent games both days with 1-5 and 0-9. In the AIF programme, I was listed as highest average scorer per game over the championship. That was nice.
Oisin: Did your heart condition inhibit you at a crucial stage in your playing career?
Kevin: I had my jaw broken against Westmeath in 2000 in the National League. I had a heart murmur as a child and had received a letter to go to the Royal for a check-up. I thought it was just routine, so I cancelled the appointment three times. It turns out I had a leaking valve. I was told to stop all activity immediately. I was only 23 and I was having open heart surgery. I was told I might never play football again. When I went back to see the surgeon, the first thing he asked me was if I needed to get ready for anything. I replied, “I’m best man for my brother and then we play Derry in the Ulster Championship”. I played 11 weeks after surgery. I had a very good year with the club. As a player, I just saw it as a bump in the road. However, my form did not fully return until 2003.
Oisin: How difficult was it to shine in a county that maybe didn’t have the same resources or player pool as other sides?
Kevin: I never looked at it in that way. It was a team sport and I concentrated on my own qualities. I always entered the pitch thinking I was at least as good, if not better, than the guys I was playing with or against. I was National League top scorer, I had a Railway Cup medal and I had the confidence to play to the best of my ability. I think the support structures are improving. In the last number of years, the seeds have been sown off the field with the Saffron Vision. I think Antrim are a different unit off the pitch now but need proper investment by Croke Park in Gaelfast. Obviously, Casement Park is hugely important to progression also.
Oisin: You suffered personal tragedy. How difficult has that been for your family?
Kevin: In 2015, Maria was pregnant. We had two beautiful girls at that stage. At the 20-week scan, we decided, with it being our third child, we would find out the sex. It was going to be a boy, to complete our family. At the 20-week scan, we were told there were complications and that he may not be compatible with life. The pregnancy went full-term. Baby Oisin was born and lived for a few short hours. It turned our world upside down and changed everything, especially our outlook on life. Where we have now moved, we can see Oisin’s grave from the house. That means so much to us. We have two beautiful girls (aged nine and six) at home and we don’t and have never hid anything from them. We include Oisin in our lives. He is present in our minds and our spirits. I remember getting a text from Anto Finnegan at the time saying, “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken”. Oisin would have been going into Primary One this year.
Oisin: The GAA is renowned for being a family, but is that how you see it?
Kevin: From when I was six, I felt a sense of belonging. You really find out about the GAA family in the darker days, when you realise people have your back. You make a lot of personal relationships and in work the GAA opens up many doors. You can make connections, friendships and relationships in any part of the world because of the GAA. When Paul McKeever passed away, how the community rallied round was unbelievable. Paul got the send-off he deserved. That’s the GAA.
Oisin: Who was the best player you played alongside?
Kevin: Tony Convery at the club and Kevin Brady with Antrim — two quality individuals.
Oisin: Who was your toughest opponent?
Kevin: Easy - Sean Marty Lockhart. Tight, tenacious and tough.
Oisin: How can we make the GAA better?
Kevin: Leave the rules alone.
Oisin: Which player, past or present, would you like to have played with?
Kevin: Seamus Moynihan — he was an animal. Henry Downey is not far behind due to his leadership.