By Kieran Lynch
DOWN GAA legend Kevin McKernan is the latest member of the Down Senior Ladies Football team, as he will join Peter Lynch’s backroom team for the upcoming season.
McKernan, who retired from inter-county football earlier this season, will still continue to play football for Burren, but he will be afforded the opportunity to progress coaching career as he reaches the latter stages of his playing days.
“That’s always something that, when you’re approaching the tail end of your own career, you begin thinking, ‘what am I going to do next?’ In terms of staying in football,” said McKernan, discussing his excitement at taking up the role.
“Obviously my time with the county set-up has come to an end, and I’m still looking forward to playing for Burren for another few years, but I wouldn’t want it to be the case that when I finish my playing career in a couple of years, that I haven’t progressed in my coaching career.
“So, getting the chance to become involved at a high level such as a Senior inter-county set-up with Down Ladies is great; I’m excited for the lessons that it will bring, and I’m excited to work with Peter [Lynch], because it’s a good opportunity to get that exposure to a set-up that wants to have that professionalism.
“It’s also a challenge for me, to see if I can bring my skills from the football pitch into a coaching capacity, and that’s what I’m looking forward to most.”
Whilst the move to join the Down Ladies’ backroom team will see McKernan link up with a Senior inter-county set-up, he has been building his coaching resume at underage level over the last few years.
“I have been involved with the Burren u-15’s and the Abbey Grammar MacRory team,” said the Down stalwart.
“I enjoy going in and helping with the Abbey; I work locally in St Ronan’s which is another great opportunity to coach and with the Abbey being so close, it’s great to be able to give back to them.
“Going to the Abbey, it’s a good level of underage, and the MacRory Cup is a competition which is really renowned for being the cream of the crop in terms of Ulster football. The experience that I had in the Abbey was a very positive one. It was the first big underage title that I won, and it was always a very fond memory that I had.
“So, to get the opportunity to go and offer my expertise to that younger crop of players is something that I just feel very lucky that I can d. It’s something that I feel is helping me in terms of my coaching ability, and how I get my message across.
“As much as I have enjoyed my football career, and as much as I still love being able to play, I now find enjoyment in coaching too. Can I think of different methods, to upskill the players? So, that when they are faced with those challenges on the pitch, they can flourish.”
Despite a tough year for Down Gaelic football, where the Senior men’s team were relegated to Division Three, and failed to win a competitive game all year, and the Senior ladies dropped down to Junior from Intermediate, McKernan remains an eternal optimist about the future of football within the county.
“I have seen the young footballers in Down in the Abbey and St Colman’s, and I firmly believe that there is that potential there to get a competitive team in place,” he said.
“It will be no different with Down Ladies. One piece of advice I always got from Danny Hughes (Saval manager), when I played was that every other county is just made up of the best players who play within that county. So, why can the Down Ladies not be as competitive as an Armagh or a Monaghan?
“That’s where the management team are looking towards now – how can we get the Down team competitive again and get the enjoyment back? We want them out there, expressing themselves, and being great role models for young girls.”
The upcoming season will see Peter Lynch return to the helm of the Down Ladies team, a position he held alongside Caoibhe Sloan between 2019 and 2021, and he will be looking to build upon a reign which saw the Mourne girls claim an Ulster Intermediate Championship in 2021.
However, with the team now in Junior, the hope will be to make an immediate return to Intermediate grade by claiming the All-Ireland Junior Championship.
When discussing what enticed him to the project with Down Ladies, McKernan says that he believes there is tremendous potential within the county, and he pointed towards Meath as an example of a county realising its potential.
In 2020, both Down and Meath had a sliding doors moment when they collided in the All-Ireland Intermediate Quarter-final. The Royals edged out Down by two points on that occasion and went on to claim the All-Ireland crown, beginning a remarkable run which has seen them win back-to-back Senior All-Irelands in 2021 and 2022, and McKernan says that Meath have set the benchmark for success in Ladies Football.
“For me, Ladies Football is a very fast-paced and growing sport, and when you watch the Meath Ladies this year, I don’t think that Down will be too far off the likes of that in about a five or six year period,” he said.
“It just goes to show the trajectory that Meath football has been on, and not so long ago Down were very close to that, as an Intermediate side trying to push for Senior. But being in Junior is not where Down Ladies want to be, and as a Down man I want to see us be competitive and push for titles.
“I’m excited to get to know the panel and how they best play, and how can I help that, is an exciting challenge.”
So, the potential is there, now Down have to show it, and McKernan believes that success can be found if the right system is in place for the team to maximise their potential.
“In team sports, there is a lot that needs to happen in order for a team to be successful,” he began.
“Outside of the players themselves, you need structures, which a good management team and county board can provide, and there are players there who are very ambitious to be the best that they can be.
“From discussions that I have had with the management team and the county board, there has been a good buy-in from the players, and it’s all about creating an environment that allows the girls to be the best that they can be.
“If that involves major success and titles and what not, that’s all well and good. If not, hopefully the development is there and we can keep building towards something that the group of girls want to achieve.”