Kernaghan still pushing back the boundaries

NEW first-team coach Kenny McDowall is not the only recent Rangers appointment to represent a break with tradition when he moved directly from Celtic to Ibrox. The drama surrounding the club meant that Alan Kernaghan's installation as youth coach at the club went relatively unnoticed. A former Republic of Ireland internationalist, Kernaghan's appointment has raised eyebrows elsewhere, most notably on both sides of the Irish border.

Coverage has focused on the unusual circumstances of his international career, something which complicates the claim he is the first Rangers member of staff to boast caps for the Republic of Ireland. While this might be true - although Dublin-born, Alex Stevenson, who played 16 times for Rangers in the 1930s, turned out for the Northern Ireland - it reveals little of the heartache involved as Kernaghan contemplated the end of an international career before it had begun. But it wasn't the Republic of Ireland who thwarted these dreams, since Kernaghan, brought up in Ulster from the age of six, had little idea he was eligible for a side about whom he had rarely thought.

Instead Northern Ireland abruptly punctured the notion he might represent the country to which he believed he belonged. His background is Ulster Protestant, although religion "meant diddly" to him. "We were never a churchgoing family," he explains. His father's family were Northern Irish, but had moved to Liverpool. "Dad worked in the docks. He had family still in Belfast, so we'd go there on holiday. Mum and Dad got married and lived in Kendal, then moved back to Northern Ireland. My brother, Michael, was born in Belfast, but then they moved back over to England with my Dad's job. I was born in Leeds, but Dad got the chance to be sales manager for the John West Food Company in the whole of Ireland, and it was back to Belfast."

Had his elder brother excelled at football then Northern Ireland would have welcomed him with open arms. Michael chose rugby, however. Alan, unaware of the tribulations to come, fell for football, swayed by the excitement generated in the Province by Billy Bingham's over-achieving international team of the Eighties. Kernaghan was taken to Windsor Park when a child by his father, and was even a ballboy on one occasion against Scotland.

"I went to watch all the qualifying games for the 1982 World Cup," recalls Kernaghan. "They were great times. I never saw George Best play, but by that stage it was Norman Whiteside. He must have been only two or three years older than me at the time. We'd heard all the whispers at school about how Man United would fly him over every weekend from Belfast to play for their youth team."

Kernaghan himself starred in the Under-15 Northern Irish schoolboys' team, and assumed when he went to Middlesbrough that the senior caps would follow. But Kernaghan was disturbed from such reverie by an Irish football Association official. He informed the player that he was ineligible due to the fact that neither he nor one of his parents had been born in Northern Ireland, a rule the IFA then insisted upon. "Until the question arose, I hadn't even thought about not being able to play for Northern Ireland," says Kernaghan. "My Dad contacted the secretary of the IFA and argued with him: 'Why is this, why can't this be changed?' From what I am led to believe the IFA were keen to keep the status quo." Kernaghan had begun to earn rave reviews for Middlesbrough, but he presumed there was only one alternative to Northern Ireland. A call-up to the England team, even one suffering the Graham Taylor doldrums, was rendered unrealistic by the form of centre-half rivals Tony Adams and Des Walker.

"Out of the blue a Dublin lad called Curtis Fleming at Middlesbrough said he had been speaking to some journalists, and told me: 'Jack's trying to bring you in'," recalls Kernaghan. 'Jack', of course, was Charlton, the manager of a Republic of Ireland team famously accommodating when it came to eligibility issues. The Football Association of Ireland [FAI] classed anyone with a grandparent born either side of the Irish border as fair game for their recruitment scouts. Hence the variety of accents heard in a dressing-room where Scots mixed with English, and sometimes the odd Irishman. Kernaghan wasn't so different to those native southern Irishman in that he spoke with an Irish lilt, if one cultivated in the north. But he stood out like a sore thumb when, on his ninth appearance for the Republic, he faced the prospect of a return to the stadium where his love affair with football began.

Northern Ireland were included in the same World Cup qualifying group as the Republic, and sparks would have flown even without Kernaghan's inclusion in the team which contested a vital last match of the campaign. Northern Ireland needed to win to have any hope of progressing to USA in 1994, while Charlton's side required only a draw should Spain avoid defeat at home to Denmark. The match lives on in Irish lore, recalled for its raucous atmosphere and extraordinary finale. With the minutes ticking down, and the Republic trailing by a goal to nil, Charlton decided to send on Tony Cascarino. The striker, however, had left his shirt behind in the dressing-room, and while he retrieved it Charlton sent on Alan McLaughlin instead.

The Portsmouth player scored the Republic's first ever goal at Windsor Park, something which simply intensified the hostility, of which Kernaghan was bearing the brunt. Not so ripe for repetition are the venomous taunts flung at Kernaghan, who was perceived to have colluded in willful treachery. "It was non-stop abuse," he recalls. "My every touch was booed and whistled. My Dad and brother were there, but fortunately my mother did not go that night. I was being f'd and b'd everywhere. I knew what was at stake in terms of qualification, and then there was all the other malarkey." He was also aware that school-friends were among those in the crowd, and perhaps even they were unaware of the reasons which prevented him turning out for Northern Ireland. Making it all seem more unfair is the agreement struck by the four Home Nation countries in 1993, which accepted that a player - providing he held a British passport - was eligible to play for the country of the birth of any of his natural grandparents. Kernaghan had made his debut for the Republic just weeks earlier.

He has few regrets, however. "I had no problems pulling on the Republic shirt," he reflects. "I was simply furthering my career. There was always a lingering tension on the periphery. Some Republic of Ireland fans and journalists didn't like it. I dealt with it as I deal with it now - it didn't matter to me."

Hanging on a study wall at his home in Livingston are the pennants received on the three occasion when he skippered Ireland, while mementoes of the World Cup in 1994 are plentiful. Alas, Kernaghan suffered a loss of form in the run-up to the tournament, and was dropped from the starting XI. He didn't experienced a single minute of competitive action in the States. On one occasion he was told to prepare to replace Paul McGrath but suffered the consequence of a typical Charlton change-of-heart. Such tales are a reminder of the status Kernaghan enjoyed in the early 1990s, when he was signed by Manchester City for 1.6 million. Also on display in this upstairs room is an advert for Sky promoting the maiden Premiership season, in 1992-93. He is in the front row representing Middlesbrough, and also included are John Wark of Ipswich and Tottenham Hotspur striker Gordon Durie.

It hasn't all been glitz and glamour for Kernaghan, who turns 40 in April. Already stung by an unhappy spell in charge of Dundee, he was alarmed when, just days before he was due to begin his new post at Rangers, Paul Le Guen left. Not that it has impacted on his role as Under-15 coach, where he will work alongside Ally Dawson at Murray Park. He bumped into Walter Smith on Thursday evening, and wished the new manager well. But he has his own job to do, one he hopes will benefit Smith in the long term.

"At Dundee I had great enjoyment bring in the young boys, and I imagine I will have the same thrill should any of the boys make it through the ranks at Rangers," Kernaghan says. He of course sees no reason why the Republic of Ireland should not be considered a recruiting ground for a club not known for its links to the country: "We are bringing in kids from all over Europe, so why should the Republic be any different?"

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