Down warhorse Kevin McKernan looking forward to 15th season in red and black

Pictured celebrating Down's Ulster semi-final win over Monaghan in 2017, Kevin McKernan is looking forward to his 15th season in red and black
Pictured celebrating Down's Ulster semi-final win over Monaghan in 2017, Kevin McKernan is looking forward to his 15th season in red and black

CROSSMAGLEN on Sunday the 25th of March, 2007. A Division 1B National Football League game between Armagh and Down was drawing to a close when Ross Carr gave a skinny, black-haired lad from Burren called Kevin McKernan a run out.

The son of club and county All-Ireland winner Brendan, the young debutant had a thoroughbred pedigree. He’d won the All-Ireland minor title with Down in 2005 and captained Abbey CBS to the MacRory Cup the following year but Armagh had half-a-dozen All-Ireland winners on the field and it didn’t take long for him to realise that he was a little out of his depth against warhorses like McGeeney and McGrane.

That five-minute sample of inter-county action was all McKernan needed to know that he had work to do on building his physique and improving his skills.

So he went back to his club and did both and from the following year until now, the Burren defender has been an automatic choice for his county.

When this season starts it will be McKernan’s 15th for Down and so far he has played over 160 games in red and black during including 53 in the Championship. The Mournemen’s restless journeys up and down the National Leagues and in the Qualifiers means that McKernan has played against every other county (including London) apart from Waterford.

Now among a dwindling band of long-serving veterans (behind Donegal’s Neil McGee and Antrim pair Paddy Cunningham and Michael McCann and just ahead of Armagh’s Brendan Donaghy who got his first run-out later in 2007) the teacher from St Ronan’s PS, Newry has enjoyed a career that includes many highlights.

After those MacRory Cup and All-Ireland minor titles he won an Ulster Championship with the Down U21s in 2008, celebrated a Sigerson Cup triumph with St Mary’s in 2017 and an International Rules series victory in Australia in 2011 with Ireland.

Championship glory has eluded him with the Down senior team but he has come mighty close. So far he has played in three Croke Park finals: The All-Ireland decider against Cork in 2010 of course as well as the Division Two finals in 2010 and 2015. There have also been Ulster final appearances in 2012 and 2017.

“It’s mad,” he says, as he takes a few minutes to draw breath and reflect.

“It just goes by in a flash.”

You wonder how serious he was when he offered to stand down at the end of last season but manager Paddy Tally assured him that he was still central to his plans as a play-making centre half-back/sweeper.

“When Paddy phoned me about this year I said to him: ‘Year after year I’m waiting for the phonecall to say: ‘You’re no longer needed!’” he admits.

“I told him that if he wanted to go in a different direction with things that was alright with me because I can see a real good Down team coming but Paddy feels he needs that experience as well and if my body is able to go then I’m happy to go another year at it.”

He’s rarely injured but time has taken an inevitable toll on him. Now 33, he says Tally’s understanding has helped to prolong his career into a 15th season.

“When I came back in last year I said to Paddy: ‘Look, I’ve been carrying a hip injury for about five or six years’. You just get through it, you rehab it and you have to look after it,” he explains.

“It’s only as you get older that you appreciate a manager giving you time to get your body right because they’re dealing with such a difference between young fellas and older lads. It’s such a juggling match for a manager trying to cope with what each player needs.”

The truncated 2020 season has also played a part in keeping him relatively fresh for this year and Down will certainly need his experience as they prepare for ‘Division Two North’ which has pitted them against Mayo and Meath (both relegated form Division One last year) and Westmeath.

“There’s going to be nothing easy there but if we could get two wins and get through to the semi-final it’s a one-off game to get promoted,” he says.

“On the other side you’re thinking straight away that you need to get a win or you’ll be in a relegation battle.”

Down will begin their NFL season aiming for promotion but the number one priority must be survival. McKernan sees that as crucial to the development of Tally’s side and experience has taught him that playing in the top two divisions, against focussed and well-drilled opposition where the ball moves faster and the hits are harder, is key to future Championship success.

“We would have liked to win the last two games (in Division Three) last year instead of getting them handed to us but getting promoted to Division Two is a big step for a young team,” he says.

“I remember Down getting back-to-back promotions in 2009 and 2010 and playing at that high level of football is the next step of the development of your team and it’s prepping you for down the line in the Championship because you’ve got that exposure to better football.

“We had a three-year stint under James McCartan in Division One from 2011 to 2013 and the longer you can stay in Division Two and get towards Division One the better it leaves you for the Championship.

“In my time, 2012 and 2017 were the two Ulster finals we got to and they were off the back of playing Division One or Two football. You saw it with Cavan this year, they’d had that exposure to Division One/Division Two football and they went and won an Ulster Championship. For us getting up to those divisions is the big thing.”

McKernan’s Championship debut came in 2008 when he was brought in as a substitute in the drawn Ulster quarter-final against Tyrone. Since that Sunday at Healy Park he has added another 52.

The last of those was the topsy-turvy Ulster semi-final thriller against Cavan at the Athletic Grounds in November. In a remarkable game, Down looked home-and-hosed at the break but the Breffnimen conjured up a superb second half performance to win by a point.

Had he ever played in a game like it? Given his longevity, it’s no surprise when he says he has but the other occasion was when Down caught Monaghan “on the hop” in a 2012 Championship classic at the Athletic Grounds.

James McCartan’s Down were nine points adrift at the interval but came back to win 1-14 to 1-13.

“When a team gets momentum on you it’s very hard to swing it but we look back on that Cavan game with regrets as players over things on the pitch,” says McKernan.

“There was so much talked about us not winning kick-outs and not getting primary possession but that’s down to what Cavan did to us. They had nothing to lose and they went for it and it worked out in their favour.

“As players, it’s very hard when you’re in that setting to get out of it. That Monaghan team we beat in 2012 was a good team but they couldn’t get out of the stranglehold we had on them.

“It happens to the best of teams, but putting your finger on one particular thing to explain it is impossible. You look back on plays when we had goal chances and we had the penalty decision when I lay on the ball and got a penalty given against me... These things happen very quickly.

“In years gone by I would have got bogged down by that but when you’re in the heat of it and you watch it back you realise there are so many fine, fine margins. If we had got one more goal it probably would have killed the game off.

“We took wrong options in the second half but, here, I’ve taken plenty of wrong options in my career – nobody is flawless in that respect. You just have to live and learn from it.”

Nearly 15 years on from that day in Crossmaglen and he’s still living and learning? There’s a lesson in that for us all.