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Down eye London scalp in bid to move on from NHL heartache

Michael Johnston is expecting his Down side to bounce back after last month's disappointing Division 2B final defeat to Armagh 
Neil Loughran

Christy Ring Cup round one: Down v London (Saturday, Ballycran, 2pm)

DOWN will be on a redemption mission when they get their Christy Ring Cup campaign underway at home to London on Saturday.

The Ards men are still licking their wounds less than a month after their bid to escape the clutches of Division 2B faltered at the final stage against rivals Armagh and Saturday is their first chance to bury those demons.

They welcome to Ballycran an Exiles side who are riding high following an impressive campaign in the division above Down, where a surprise 17-point victory over Carlow was followed by wins against Derry and Antrim. Indeed, having snatched a last-gasp draw in Kildare, the only game London lost en route to narrowly missing out on the Division 2A final was an opening day defeat to high-flying Westmeath.

Down could have had easier games to bounce back with, but boss Mickey Johnston expects a positive reaction from his men after the pain of missing out on promotion.

He said: “There’s a bit of a hangover alright in terms of how we played in the final, but you just have to draw a line under that. We know we have to redeem ourselves.

“Without taking away from Armagh’s victory over us, we just didn’t perform on the day. We wouldn’t have seen that in the lead-up to it, we certainly didn’t see it in the dressing room or the warm-up, but anybody involved in teams or sport will know you just get days like that.

“We were a shadow of the team that played against Meath the week before and some players know themselves that their performances just weren’t good enough on the day. But you get a sore neck looking back - that’s the beauty of sport. You pick yourself up and go again. We’ll see on Saturday what hangover is left.”

Without Conor Mageean - shown a red card in the dying minutes of last month’s defeat to the Orchard men in Dundalk - as well as regular free-taker Caolan Bailie, also suspended, Johnston admits he is “trying to fill gaps” in a depleted forward line.

The loss of the versatile Rian Brannigan, who is USA-bound, is a further blow for a forward line still trying to cope with the loss of players like Paul Braniff, Johnny McCusker and Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnston in recent years.

“It’s very, very hard to replace men like that,” added the Down boss.

Yet, the men in red-and-black will go into Saturday’s game with confidence after overturning London 1-22 to 1-13 in the Christy Ring last year, while the fact it is being played in Ballycran is always well received by the predominantly Ards-based panel.

Given their high turnover of players, preparing to face the Exiles any time presents a headache for opposition managers and Johnston is expecting a “serious challenge” on Saturday afternoon.

He said “You’re going to be playing players who hurled either county minor, U21 or even senior level in Munster or Leinster. In terms of hurling ability, they’re well up there.

“So we know we’re facing a serious challenge, but I can’t be sitting thinking about London. My concern is the Down players and how we perform, that’s all that matters.

“The bottom line is that we don’t want the 73 minutes we played in Dundalk - or rather, that we didn’t play in Dundalk - to define our season. That’s National League, it’s winter hurling - the summer hurling starts now.

"We’ve had time to recover, the players have had time to rediscover a wee bit of their mojo back at their clubs and we’ll see what Saturday brings for us.”

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