Tuesday 16 January 2018

McKernan hopeful Down can 'pick Farney pocket' as they bid to continue revival

Former All-Star sets sights on return to top eight after painful decline since reaching 2010 All-Ireland final

Kevin McKernan of Down comes under pressure from Armagh’s Stefan Campbell during the Ulster SFC quarter-final in Newry. Photo by Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Kevin McKernan of Down comes under pressure from Armagh’s Stefan Campbell during the Ulster SFC quarter-final in Newry. Photo by Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Back in mid-February, Kevin McKernan and his father Brendan clung tight to each other under a Mayo sky. Kevin finally had what he craved so hard: 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 All-Ireland-winning Down side of 1991. An All-Ireland medal has a big effect on a man's self-worth.

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

Within a year, Kevin would win a MacRory and Hogan Cup. Within five years he played in an All-Ireland final, won an All-Star and was 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 just so.

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 League or Championship, ending with defeat to Longford.

He points out now the underlying reason.

"A bad run of defeats like that - it was over two seasons and we went through two changes of management - 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."

There were no consolations. 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," says McKernan. "Those couple of defeats we had last year were heart-breaking 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.

"It is worrying where things can go, and it is going to come to a head somewhere," says McKernan. "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 this year.

"Inter-county football can be a very lonely place at times," says the 29-year-old. "When a group of players 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 renowned sports psychologist Brendan Hackett.

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

It gave the long-suffering fans in Newry something to cheer about and they went on to defeat Derry the following weekend and ultimately survive in Division 2, with their season coming down to the final play in their last game away to Cork.

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

"The onus was on us to get a result over Armagh," says Kevin. "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 who 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.

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

"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 fellas in," he says.

"The likes of Caolan Mooney, Darragh O'Hanlon are another year on in Championship football. Last year, we were throwing four or five rookies in against Monaghan and we threw two or three in against Armagh but that will stand to them."

Down are 4/1 to beat Monaghan, and 10/1 to win their province. Arguably, they are further away from a provincial title than at any time since 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 says.

"We are hoping, year after year, that we can pick a pocket somewhere along the line and I feel honestly that we can be a top eight team in the next year or two. That is our target this year.

"We are facing a Division 1 team now and they are going to have to be pick-pocketed now. We will be underdogs but hopefully we will be ready to go."

Irish Independent

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