Tyrone's Michael McKernan in dream land as he looks forward to All-Ireland final date with Dublin
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Monaghan 0-15 Tyrone 1-13
MICHAEL McKernan was one of the first to emerge from the Tyrone changing room with the broadest possible smile painted on his 20-year-old face.
After signing a match programme and posing for a photograph with a young supporter, the fresh-faced Coalisland man was surrounded by a posse of grizzled hacks before he could throw his kit bag onto the team bus.
Everyone holding a recording device to McKernan’s face felt decidedly ancient.
You could tell Tyrone’s rookie corner-back was on cloud nine because his wide smile never dimmed for a second.
In 2008, the last time Tyrone reached an All-Ireland final, he was 10-years-old.
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He was seated in the upper Hogan stand with his “oul fella” as Tyrone claimed their third All-Ireland crown by beating Kerry in the final.
He remembers the day vividly because he got lost trying to get down to pitch-side to celebrate with the thousands of other Tyrone fans.
But at least he got to Croke Park in ’08. When Tyrone won their first title in ’03, he watched his heroes make history in his auntie’s house in Eglish.
“I was five. I wasn't allowed to go,” he laughed.
After breaking into Mickey Harte’s starting line-ups this year, McKernan has made the number two berth his own.
There were no early black cards to contend with like last week – just a typically astute defensive display that contributed to Tyrone overcoming provincial conquerors Monaghan in a nail-biting All-Ireland semi-final.
“At the start of the year, when you're coming in having watched those boys win Ulster titles last year and the year before, but this was always the benchmark,” said McKernan.
“I was watching them against Dublin in the semi-final [last year], and unfortunately they didn't get over it.
"And I was watching them against Kerry [2015 All-Ireland semi-final]... and thankfully I was there this year to help them.
“I was in the U21s last year and after that ended, I didn't know if I'd play for Tyrone again.”
He continues to wear the Tyrone jersey with distinction.
In the midst of the euphoria, McKernan yesterday thanked former Coalisland manager John McKeever for giving him the chance to shine at senior level. And from then, the defender’s career has soared.
Now he’s preparing to face Dublin in an All-Ireland final in three weeks’ time.
He fully expects the days ahead to be “nuts” - but in a good way.
“I just played for the club and thankfully got the chance with the club seniors, and Mickey [Harte] must have seen me.
“The McKenna Cup was the first real chance and he had me in the League panel, so I had the League to impress in and try to make the Championship panel, and thankfully I did that.”
He added: “Mickey called me in and knows I should be mature enough to do it myself so he shouldn't really need to guide me, he doesn't need to walk me along.
“[But] Any help I need, yeah, he's certainly there to help.”
Tyrone, in truth, made hard work of yesterday’s semi-final victory as they missed a hatful of chances in the first half and ended up going in at the break level, 0-8 apiece.
After a couple of hairy moments in the dying embers, the Red Hands just about held onto their one-point advantage.
In a game punctuated by countless mistakes, McKernan described the 70 minutes as “intense, gruesome, just brutal.”
“Monaghan push us all the way and you'd their subs coming on - the likes of Kieran Hughes, deadly talents.
“There’s plenty of improvement for us. Today we'll take the positives out of it, but there are also negatives that we can improve on and we'll be looking for that in three weeks.”
And with that sentiment, we released the young Coalisland man and we watched as he floated up the steps of the team bus.
Living the dream…