Down new boys are ready for Championship - Eamonn Burns
AFTER a steep learning curve during a tough Division One campaign, Eamonn Burns believes his Down side is ready to mix it with the big boys at the height of the Championship summer.
The Mourne men were relegated from the top flight after losing all seven league games, but in the final weeks showed some signs of improvement as they head towards an Ulster Championship showdown with reigning provincial kingpins Monaghan on June 5.
Down have already travelled to Clones this season, coming out on the wrong side of a 0-13 to 0-11 scoreline, but Burns feels his men are in a much better now place now after a strong finish to the league, with decent showings against Roscommon, All-Ireland champions Dublin, Cork and Mayo.
“The league was a learning curve for everybody,” said the two-time All-Ireland winner.
“As a management team, we were appointed very late. We were denied a lot of senior footballers who - for very genuine reasons - couldn’t commit and, in all of those games, we were putting seven or eight players in the starting team who hadn’t played in this division before.
“It had been a year or two since the senior players had played in Division One against the top six or seven teams in Ireland and, for the younger players who came in, it let them know exactly where they should be if they’re going to play long into the summer - the type of commitment, speed of thought and decision-making required.
“They know the levels they have to get up to. There was definitely periods in all the games we played where they proved they could hold their own.”
Necessity rather than design forced Burns to shuffle his pack throughout the course of the league, particularly in the forward division, where the loss of Donal O’Hare early on, Connaire Harrison, Shay McArdle and Caolan Mooney - who has left the panel - led to the introduction of some fresh blood.
Clonduff’s Barry O’Hagan performed admirably when given the chance and was the one bright spot in the otherwise miserable 16-point defeat to Kerry in Newry on February 28.
Ballyholland’s livewire Joe Murphy and Castlewellan corner-forward Sean Dornan also caught the eye at times and have given Burns food for thought ahead of the Ulster campaign.
The Down boss took heart, in particular, from the determination and doggedness on show as they fell to Mayo on the final day of the league. Up against a Mayo side in need of victory to keep their own survival hopes alive, the Mourne men kept pegging the Connacht champions back in Castlebar, before eventually slipping to a 1-19 to 1-16 defeat.
In terms of preparation for the Championship, that was as competitive a game as Down could have hoped for: “It was very encouraging. They dug in, got themselves back into the game twice, so it shows a very positive attitude to that kind of battle," said Burns.
“The Mayo game was definitely Championship pace and all the players we had out equipped themselves well and were definitely up to the task. I would be very confident they can all play at that level.
“As a management team, we have a definite idea of how we want to play and systems have to be worked on. It’s not going to happen overnight. But definitely, the defensive structure has started to take shape, people are starting to grow into their roles and the transition from defence to attack has improved immensely over the last couple of games.
“In the last game, our scoring tally improved dramatically, so the players can see there’s progress and the break between the league and Championship will give us time to work on it, maybe get a couple of challenge games and try a few things out.”