Burns' Down still under construction
AFTER a disappointing 2015, Down remain a work in progress.
For Arthur McConville though, a new season means another chance to cement a starting spot in the red-and-black, as he tells Paul McConville...
ARTHUR McCONVILLE is an early riser. A bricklayer by trade, the Hilltown man is up at six in the morning, lunch box tucked under the arm, waiting on a van to pick him up and take him to that day’s job.
When we speak, he’s working in Bangor; he could be anywhere around the country, any day of the week he admits. It’s the sort of life Cavan manager Terry Hyland said recently is becoming less and less conducive to an inter-county career. But with the construction industry picking up, so too are the opportunities for the 25-year-old Down forward.
And after a decent personal showing in the Dr McKenna Cup, McConville is hoping to get a few more chances to show what he can do on the football field. The Clonduff clubman made some telling contributions to Down’s successful promotion push under Jim McCorry last year, coming off the bench to score goals against Kildare and Laois and help set up one against Cavan. However, he also found the net as a starter against Westmeath and is reluctant to be pigeon-holed as a super-sub.
“Some boys didn’t get opportunities to come on last year, like I did when Jim was there. When I scored that goal against Kildare, and set up a goal against Cavan and scored a goal against Roscommon, I said to him ‘You like using me as an impact sub’,” said McConville.
“Every player wants to start, but I wasn’t just at that point of starting, then I was happy enough to benefit and push the team on in some way, coming on or if I did get a start. Everybody likes to start, hopefully this year I’ll start a few more games.”
McConville’s first venture onto the county scene was in contrast to last year when he failed to start either of Down’s two Championship matches. Drafted onto the panel in 2012 by James McCartan, he was immediately given a start against Kerry in the league.
“Coming in as the new guy, you’re expecting to learn from the bench and get 10 or 15 minutes here and there. But James just threw me in against Kerry, which I was happy enough about,” he said.
However, he has struggled to hold down a regular starting place since, despite proving a handful for defences with his imposing physique. Part of the reason is the wealth of attacking talent at the disposal of successive Mourne managers and, despite good showings in the Dr McKenna Cup, including a man-of-the-match display against St Mary’s, McConville knows he has a job on his hands to secure a spot on Éamonn Burns’ first 15 for their National League opener against Donegal on January 30.
As well as the new faces on Burns’ McKenna Cup panel such as Seán Dornan and Barry O’Hagan, Down forwards have been catching the eye for their colleges, not least Kilcoo’s Ryan Johnston, who scored a sensational 1-2 against Donegal when sprung from the bench for St Mary’s in their victory in Letterkenny. Ryan’s brother Jerome and Burren’s Donal O’Hare have been regular starters, and scorers, in recent years and will be hard to shift.
Throw into the mix the potential return of Benny Coulter and Marty Clarke and former captain Mark Poland, and you have about a dozen forwards scrapping for six jerseys. However, it is a challenge McConville is relishing and one he believes will ultimately benefit the team.
“If I’m trying to stay in at full-forward or corner-forward, I’m coming up against the likes of Packie Downey and Niall Madine - Niall had a very good McKenna Cup with Jordanstown, he played very well in a couple of games, so I hear,” he said.
“It’s going to be tough, which is what you want. You want to be competing for your place in the squad. If you’re not competing for your place in the squad, your team will not compete in the league because there’s no push on them. If I get a starting position, I know there’ll be three or four boys down my neck wanting my jersey. If I start against Donegal, they’ll all be looking at the next game.”
The Mourne men have been known to favour quick and nippy forwards and have, in the past, drawn much criticism for their lack of physical presence in the forward line. McConville knows that is something he can bring to the party, but concedes that, as long as players are scoring, size doesn’t matter.
“People have said that over the years, the Down forwards are too wee. But if the boys are there doing the job, you can’t argue with them,” he said.
“Last year, Jim had me and Packie [Downey] and Niall, we were the only boys who were really the physical forwards and none of us started too many games. The likes of Jerome and Donal, they racked up the scores and we got promoted to Division One, so you can’t argue with that.”
The Donegal game is one of only three home games for Down on their return to Division One, with last year’s All-Ireland finalists Kerry and Dublin also visiting Newry. With a new manager for the second year running, a squad in transition and an unconvincing 2015 Championship campaign, Down have been tipped for a short stay back in the top flight.
It’s nothing new insists McConville, who remembers similarly doom-laden predictions being made this time last year: “I don’t think it’s fair but, then again, last year people were expecting Down to struggle in Division Two, coming up against the likes of Meath and Kildare and Roscommon,” he said.
“They were the three favourites to be promoted and it ended up we got promoted. People said to us, 'you’ll not stay in Division Two'... well, we didn’t stay in Division Two, we went up, not down.”
Making a good early start to the campaign is vital insists McConville, and who would know better than him?
LOOK OUT FOR
Whether a team has a new manager or one in their third or fourth season, the Dr McKenna Cup will always see a flurry of new faces. Éamonn Burns has given county debuts to a number of Down players in the last few weeks.
Forwards Gareth Johnson (Tullylish) and Seán Dornan (Castlewellan) got on the scoresheet during the McKenna Cup, while Ballyholland’s Joe Murphy added some physical presence to the attacking department. Whether they will have done enough to have a staked a claim in Burns’ National League squad remains to be seen, with more seasoned county players returning to the squad.
Ballymartin’s Cathal Doyle also impressed at midfield during the pre-season competition and, with club-mate Peter Fitzpatrick opting off the panel this year and Kevin McKernan perhaps deemed more useful elsewhere on the field, Doyle has the opportunity to grab a centre-field spot.
Ballyholland’s run to the semi-finals of the Down Senior Football Championship led to Robbie White being named Senior Club Player of the Year in Down and the talented centre half-back could feature in county colours this season.
Bookies don’t often get it wrong and installing Down as odds-on favourites to be relegated from Division One looks a safe bet. Last week’s win over St Mary’s in their final Dr McKenna Cup match was their first victory since defeating Laois last April to secure promotion from Division Two.
Since then, they lost to the Division Two final to Roscommon - having already lost to the Rossies in their league meeting in Newry - were edged out by Derry in the Ulster Championship and crashed out of the Qualifiers at the hands of Wexford. A change of manager did not immediately arrest that slump as Éamonn Burns oversaw defeats to Donegal and Fermanagh in his first two Dr McKenna Cup matches.
Upheaval on and off the pitch has once again blighted Down’s pre-season preparations and Burns’ relatively late appointment has not afforded the All-Ireland winner much time to put his stamp on this Down team. However, the Dr McKenna Cup was not a futile tournament and the new Mourne boss will have benefited from the crash course it provided.
Forwards Arthur McConville and Caolan Mooney looked sharp at times and goalkeeper Stevie Kane has shown his experience will be invaluable this season. Factor in the potential return of some of the stars of the 2010 run to the All-Ireland final in Benny Coulter, Dan Gordon and Marty Clarke, and Down do have some quality and experienced personnel to call upon.
However, Burns’ has yet to be able to have all those options available to him in the short time he has been Down boss. With only three home games - against Donegal, Kerry and Dublin - making the most of that advantage will be essential, no matter how daunting the opposition. A hallmark of their promotion push last year was their ability to finish games strongly, most notably in victories over Kildare and Galway.
If they can stay in touch with the higher level of opposition in Division One, they will have the forwards, whether starting or coming off the bench, to plunder vital scores which could make the difference between survival and relegation.