'If I was playing and we lost, it probably wouldn't have hurt as much as not playing'
As he sat on the sideline with a broken collarbone, Liam Kerr could only watch as his Burren team-mates came up just short in their Down final against soon-to-be All-Ireland champions Kilcoo. Now, as he tells Neil Loughran, he and his team-mates are ready for another crack at championship glory...
WATCHING from the wings is never easy, especially when parish pride and a county crown are at stake. This was the position Liam Kerr found himself in as winter waited around the corner last November.
Since blitzing through the underage ranks, a bewitching combination of brilliant ball-carrying ability and pinpoint accuracy, Burren hopes hung on Kerr long before he made his name on the senior scene.
As a 19-year-old he played his part when the St Mary’s ended Kilcoo’s charge towards a seventh straight county title four years ago. But talk of a new era – one tinted white and green rather than black – proved premature.
The Magpies dug in their heels, and then some, under Mickey Moran, domination in Down transferred to Ulster and, ultimately, All-Ireland level, a journey that truly clicked into gear when seeing off their most familiar foes at Pairc Esler.
Burren - under former Kilcoo boss Jim McCorry - came on strong towards the end that day, the towering Shay McArdle making a huge impact off the bench as the deficit was cut to two at a stage. In truth, though, it was too little, too late.
While the Magpies settled into a rhythm and took control of the first half, Burren were sorely missing the pace and guile their playmaker so often provides. A broken collarbone suffered in semi-final victory over Clonduff had spelled the end of Kerr’s campaign, making a difficult afternoon all the more miserable.
“When you’re not playing, you have no say in the outcome… that’s like a double blow when you’re coming off getting an injury.
“If I was playing and we lost, it probably wouldn’t have hurt as much as not playing and not being able to do anything about it, if that makes sense. It was hard to watch.
“I really still thought we could win - when you get to any final, obviously that’s the aim. Kilcoo have a lot of experience in games like that, maybe on a different day the rub of the green would’ve went with us.
“But it leaves you optimistic for the next year… everyone was chomping at the bit to get back at it. Last year we got a really good crop of players, the likes of big Odhran Murdock, and getting to that final will stand by them boys. You can kind of tell the experience gained even, they’re a year wiser now and they have that experience under their belt.
“We were rocky enough in the league at times but we’ve started to click into gear. Hopefully we can keep that going now, and hopefully I can stay injury-free this year…”
It is not an experience Kerr would wish to repeat, especially given the potential complications a broken collarbone can bring.
However, after initial fears that it could be well into 2022 before he was playing ball again, Kerr was back in time for the first game of Down’s National League campaign against Derry on January 29.
“The injury happened around the end of October, I had surgery in mid-November then did my own rehab, trying to build a bit of strength up before going to see the physios at Down.
“I was just constantly working with them, then the week before the Derry game we played a challenge against Fermanagh and I came on, felt 100 per cent. I hadn’t even trained much before that, never mind played any football, so it was good to get out.
“I took a couple of hits and really felt secure with it. That was probably six or seven weeks since the injury, I was heavily strapped up but I felt confident enough to play.
“I’d heard somebody talking about a similar injury they had and saying it can finish you, so obviously that was in my mind. But I was confident enough I was okay to play.”
It was a welcome boost for beleaguered boss James McCartan as Down attempted to salvage their Division Two status in what would prove a year to forget for the Mournemen.
Seven games brought no wins, with only a draw against Meath to show for their endeavours as Down slipped into the third tier of the National League. Kerr carried the fight but it wasn’t enough and, by the time the Ulster Championship date with Monaghan came around, the Burren schemer wasn’t available.
Plans to spend the summer Stateside ruled him out of contention that day, only for his situation to change as Kerr – who works for Newry-based player tracking & analysis provider STATSports - found himself back in the frame for the Tailteann Cup clash with Cavan.
“I was definitely thinking about going out,” he says, “but with the way thinks worked out with work and stuff… I was only new into the job in November, so maybe when I’ve a bit more experience I’ll go.
“It’s definitely something I’d be looking to do before I get too old to do it.”
McCartan’s second stint at the helm has since come to an end, the two-time All-Ireland winner calling time after a difficult eight months. Having started his senior inter-county career under Paddy Tally – who helped Kerry claim Sam Maguire last month – Kerr is expected to play a pivotal role under new boss Conor Laverty.
And, speaking before Laverty’s appointment, the 23-year-old admitted continuity was key going forward if Down are to emerge as a force once more.
“I got on very well with Paddy [Tally] and really liked him as manager.
“The fact he brought me in, that helps too. To be fair he showed a lot of trust in me, I got a lot of game-time… I remember at the start I wasn’t playing as much as I would’ve liked to, I put in a good few performances in the League but I was still sub for some games.
“Looking back now that all stood by because when I did get that first start I was so hungry to stay there - I thought he was a great manager.
“It’s really been stop-start ever since I’ve come in – first there was Covid, then we’ve changed managers. Whoever comes in next, it needs to be a longer term, give the manager a really good chance.
“You look at the likes of Derry – we played Derry in the League in Newry three years ago and beat them, then you look at where they are now. That has to be the inspiration for Down now, when you look at those boys and see what they’ve done in a relatively short space of time.
It shows how quick things can change.
“Obviously there’s great footballers in Down, we all know that, it’s just about getting that team morale, everyone wanting to play for Down and give their all for the red and black jersey.”
For the time being, though, club is king and it is Burren’s championship ambitions that preoccupy Kerr’s thoughts.
Their campaign begins against Mayobridge on Monday night, with the recent league success – the Division One title secured after an ill-tempered clash with Kilcoo last week – sending them into the hunt for the Frank O’Hare Cup full of confidence.
And as well as the extra experience the younger members of McCorry’s panel have gained, Burren can also call on the class of Paddy Burns after the Armagh star’s transfer from Forkhill.
Despite having struggled for minutes since the hamstring injury that forced him off early in June’s All-Ireland qualifier win over Tyrone, Kerr is excited at the prospect of lining out alongside a quality operator.
“When he’s fit, he seems to be one of the first names on Kieran McGeeney’s team sheet, so he’ll be a big asset to us.
“It’s great to have him.”
For the rest of the chasing pack, though, it is Kilcoo who remain the team to beat.
Since reaching the pinnacle of club football back in February, the legendary Moran has stepped aside, with right hand men Conleith Gilligan and Richie Thornton stepping into the breach.
They are charged with keeping the Magpies’ remarkable run of success going, and Kerr doesn’t believe Kilcoo’s drive will have been diminished in any way by landing an All-Ireland crown.
“To be honest, we know how dedicated the Kilcoo players are. I’d be friends with a couple of the players - they’re not a team to lose their hunger.
“At the minute they’re probably the team to beat for everyone, so how can you not say they’re going in as favourites this year? We’d be confident in our own preparation because we’ve worked really hard this year… in a way it’s everyone’s second year. Jim McCorry was only in last year, we’ve had a longer time with the management team and some new players have come in and brought a new lease of life to it as well.
“As it stands, we’re in a pretty good place.”
DOWN SFC: WHO IS IN CONTENTION?
IT was Kilcoo and Burren who contested last year’s Down final, Kilcoo and Burren who dominated the build-up to this year’s county championship after last week’s unseemly league final row, and it is Kilcoo and Burren who are expected to go toe-to-toe for the Frank O’Hare Cup again this time around.
Mickey Moran is no longer at the helm for the All-Ireland kingpins, but there is continuity from the success of recent years with Conleith Gilligan and Richie Thornton – Moran’s right hand men – taking over.
Like clubs across the country, the Magpies were waiting on some big players coming back from the States, with Ceilum Doherty and Ryan Johnston making their return in last week’s Division One decider - albeit for just 16 seconds in Johnston’s case as he was shown a red card.
Midfielder Dylan Ward was with Doherty at Chicago Parnell’s this summer, and will be available for Friday’s championship clash with Clonduff, while the experienced Aidan Branagan has also returned to the fold following a short-lived retirement.
Justin Clarke suffered a cruciate ligament injury before half-time against Burren last week and is out for the rest of the year, while Paul Devlin, Miceal Rooney and Jerome Johnston are all nursing injuries coming into the campaign.
Burren, meanwhile, come in off the back of an impressive finish to their league campaign. They are still waiting on experienced duo Paddy Burns and Donal O’Hare to come back after injury, while Peter Fegan, Ardan and Malachi McAvoy boost Jim McCorry’s options further after returning from America.
With Liam Kerr, Paddy McCarthy, Ryan Magill and Ryan Cunningham all in good form, the St Mary’s look well placed for a title push.
There are quite a few clubs among the chasing pack. Warrenpoint are without injured pair Ross McGarry and Ryan McAleenan but with young forward Aaron Magee impressing, the experienced John Boyle back from injury and county men Paddy Murdock, Cormac McCartan, Ruairi McCormack and goalkeeper Gary McMahon providing a solid spine, Shane Mulholland’s men can’t be ruled out.
Carryduff have former Orchard ace Finnian Moriarty – who led Maghery to the 2020 Armagh title – at the helm, and are boosted by the addition of former Fermanagh midfielder Eoin Donnelly. Ronan Beattie and John McGeough are back after spells on the sidelines, while Daniel Guinness and Owen McCabe offer pace and power, but the loss of Josh Connery and forward James Guinness is a significant blow to their hopes.
Clonduff, with a nice mix of youth and experienced under Ciaran McBride, are another club who will fancy their chances against anyone. Down star Barry O’Hagan returned to the fold earlier this month, while Ross Carr, Paddy Branagan and John Boden – who were also Stateside – are expected to be in contention against Kilcoo on Friday, though Stephen McConville is an injury doubt.