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'It was a great experience but it was tinged with a bit of disappointment as well'

Alan Kernaghan talks to The42 of going to the World Cup in 1994, having grown up expecting to play for Northern Ireland.

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This article is a part of The42′s USA 94 Week, a special series of commemorative features to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Fifa World Cup. To read more from the series, click here >

 

THIS BEING AN Irish football story, it’s best to start with Eamon Dunphy. 

“I find myself standing next to Alan Kernaghan, the young centre-half of whom I have been severely critical”, wrote Dunphy in the Sunday Independent as the Irish squad and press landed for the 1994 World Cup. 

“He is having a beer with Roy Keane and Ronnie Whelan. ‘What will you have to drink, Eamon?’ Kernaghan asks.

“A beer? A beer it is. I crawl back to my seat to reflect on the wonders of journalism and football commentary. 

“I feel a right shit. The truth is you can’t allow yourself to have any human contact with the people you write about. It’s the people you write for who matter. Still, I’m shaken by Kernaghan’s maturity and graciousness.”

Kernaghan Alan Kernaghan.

Kernaghan didn’t fit Dunphy’s mould of The Slighted Footballer – but then he has always eluded easy definitions. 

He played with the Northern Ireland schoolboys and grew up as a ball boy at Windsor Park, but by the time he played there at senior level, the home fans were abusing him, hissing outrageously that his mother was “the Pope’s whore.”

Kernaghan later committed what he called “financial suicide” in swapping Manchester City for a happier life with St Johnstone in Scotland, managed type one diabetes throughout a lengthy playing career and later became the first Republic of Ireland international to coach at Glasgow Rangers. 

He was also among the few outfield players – Alan McLoughlin and Eddie McGoldrick the others – who didn’t play a minute of that World Cup. 

“With a wee bit of disappointment”, is how he looks back at the tournament a quarter-century on. 

I’d played in the majority of the qualifiers, but then Phil Babb came in and did really well, and he played in all the World Cup games. It was the law of the game. I was fit, I felt good, and I nearly got a chance against Mexico when Jack was going to take Paul [McGrath] off but he changed his mind. 

“It was a great experience but it was tinged with a bit of disappointment as well.” 

The sharpest end of Dunphy’s pen was jabbed at Kernaghan after the qualifier defeat to Spain at Lansdowne Road.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

Paul McGrath was moved to midfield to accommodate his selection in defence, but he committed a conspicuous error as Ireland lost a grip on their ambitions ahead of the final qualifying game at Windsor Park. 

A feral atmosphere in that game was particularly intense for Kernaghan, with much of the crowd ignorant as to how he ended up playing under the FAI. 

“I was fortunate enough to play with the schoolboys with Northern Ireland”, says Kernaghan, “and when that was finished the road block came that I didn’t know about.” 

The road block was a long-standing agreement between the Home Nations that prevented their capping a player born in the jurisdiction of one of the other three football associations. 

Although he had been living in Bangor since the age of four, Kernaghan was born in England, so was out. 

His grandparents held Irish passports, however, and with the Republic not part of the Home Nations’ agreement – he came to play for Jack. 

Did Kernaghan agonise over his decision? 

“No, not in the slightest.

“I just jumped at it. It was a chance to play international football for a side who had just come back from a World Cup and a Euros, and were flying high. There was no thought of politics, it was totally a football manner.” 

And so he found himself harangued and abused at Windsor Park, on a night football was reduced to the simplified binaries that were no part of his upbringing. 

Kernaghan was raised Protestant, but his wasn’t a churchgoing family and there was never an “us versus them” element to his childhood. 

“No. No, never. I lived in a community that wasn’t bothered either way. Obviously you saw it on the news every evening, but Bangor was fortunate in that it was never affected that much.

“We had one explosion that blew up the co-op, but aside from that, it was a peaceful town.” 

The qualifier game with Northern Ireland, in contrast, took place in a roiling, hateful atmosphere. With the Troubles still blazing, Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham added further spark ahead of the game by deriding the Republic’s “mercenaries” For security reasons, Charlton’s team had to fly rather than drive. 

“There were certain grounds in England where you’d get abused”, remembers Kernaghan, “but it was a different level that night.

“People were much more targeted. It is weird when you play those games, it’s mostly just noise but then there’s a stage when the ground falls completely quiet and you can hear this one voice. 

“It was pretty vicious but it was my chance to do a once-in-a-lifetime thing so I had to get my head down and get on with it.”

Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser meant Ireland spent a desperate few minutes at full-time waiting for Spain to cling on to a 1-0 lead against Denmark. 

Once they did…

“There was pandemonium. Then [Northern Ireland captain] Alan McDonald came in and said, ‘Congratulations, I’ll be cheering you on’, which was an amazing thing for him to do.” 

With Kernaghan struggling for consistency in a poor Manchester City team and a lightning rod for the crowd’s disaffections, he would have to prove his worth to Charlton ahead of kick-off in the United States.

He got a chance to do so in a pre-tournament friendly against the Czech Republic, with Charlton telling him ahead of the game that “you have to play well today.” 

He didn’t – Ireland lost 3-1, and Kernaghan lamented after the game that he played like his boot laces were tied together, likening his performance to that of the Goofy and Mickey Mouse mascots that led the teams out. 

Hence Kernaghan had a watching brief in the States, as Charlton partnered McGrath with Phil Babb. 

He admits not playing takes away from the experience, although doesn’t dim it completely. 

“It was very interesting to be behind the scenes at one of the biggest events the world has seen. The only thing I would look back and wish we had was, probably not social media, but to be able to see the news back home; it would have been great to see the reaction back home rather than hear it third-hand, especially after the Italy game.”

Nor does he hold any rancour toward Charlton. 

“I think he was…not belittled, but he wasn’t thought of as much as he should have been in terms of his tactics. I know as time went on those kinds of tactics were left behind by a lot of teams, but for eight to 10 years they worked really, really well.” 

Kernaghan would ultimately make 22 appearances for Ireland, the last of which came as captain in Roy Keane’s stead in the 1996 US Cup. He has no quibbles with how his international career ended, and instead remembers Mick McCarthy’s “class” in giving him the armband. 

Alan Kernaghan 1994 Kernaghan cools off during the '94 World Cup. Source: INPHO

His club career would continue for some time, even making a pre-season appearance for Brentford in the summer of 2013. By that stage he was a coach, and had held player-coach roles with Clyde, Livingston and Falkirk, the latter whom he left to manage Dundee. 

Before ending up on the staff at Brentford, he had worked with Rangers’ U15s, a first for a senior Irish international. “I wouldn’t say I was breaking new ground”, says Kernaghan. “Because I wasn’t involved in the first team, it wasn’t really noted, as such. I really enjoyed it, and I was never questioned once about anything.” 

He returned to Northern Ireland to manage Glentoran, but it didn’t go to plan – he resigned after less than a year in charge, the nadir proving to be a Cup defeat to part-time Annagh United. 

He expects it to be his final job in management. 

“I was disappointed I couldn’t make a difference to them. I thought we had a good bunch of players together, who could play in a certain way, and pre-season went really well, and then….it just sort of didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

“There is always one result that pushes you over the edge, and I thought that I had tried as best as I could and so I resigned. Simple as that.

“I feel I’ve had my time. I’m enjoying what I’m doing at the moment.” 

Presently, Kernaghan is working across nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland for Rangers, in which he coaches kids aged between seven and 14 “to get them playing football and to show them the Rangers way.” 

He says the work is partly to profile the club, but also something he hopes can be beneficial to the local communities.

Busy doing that, Kernaghan isn’t wasting too much time worrying about the future. 

“Politics is the last thing on my mind, I’d scan the headlines but that’s about it. Like many footballers, I start at the back of the newspaper and work my way to the front, there is too much to enjoy in life to worry about those things.” 

As for the criticism he rose above, that Dunphy so admired – did he really never let any of it get to him? 

“Not really, no. The mistake against Spain was rightly criticised, I never felt I was being picked out. They were just doing their job. I’ve always had the perspective of trying to stick two fingers up at somebody, to prove them wrong. That was a big motivation for me.” 

But he never allowed it to get personal? 

“No. Looking back, it was just a way to win.” 

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Gavin Cooney

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