Down travel to Cork needing at least a point to survive in Allianz Football League Division Two
Allianz Football League Division Two: Cork v Down (Sunday, Pairc Ui Rinn, 2pm)
IT’S the scenario Down supporters feared when the Division Two fixtures were released towards the end of last year.
Home games against Fermanagh, Meath, Kildare and Galway, with fellow strugglers Derry away? Not bad – not bad at all.
Maybe if enough points had been accrued by that stage, the final game will be nothing more than a dead rubber. That was the hope anyway.
Instead, the Mourne county make the long trip to Cork knowing they have to get something, a draw at the very least, and even that mightn’t be enough, against a county who have been their bogey side in recent times.
Since being edged out by the Rebels in the 2010 All-Ireland final, Down have met Cork six times – once in Championship, five times in Division One. They have lost every time.
Indeed, the average margin of defeat across those games is edging up towards the 10-point mark after some crushing reversals at the hands of the Munster men.
That is just to provide some recent historical context to tomorrow’s game. In truth Cork, like Down, are a much faded force since the third Sunday in September seven years ago.
The fact they even find themselves in football’s second tier tells its own tale as major players have moved off the stage while others have been beset by injuries.
Before a ball had been thrown-in this year, Cork would have been expected to win promotion back to Division One, perhaps topping the table for good measure.
Instead, Peadar Healy’s men find themselves heading into the final game of the League treading water. With six points, they are clear of relegation trouble, but have no chance of an immediate return to the top table.
Could that play into Down’s hands? It could work one of two ways.
Healy may see tomorrow as an opportunity to work on a couple of new things or have a look at different players before their Munster Championship campaign starts against Waterford eight weeks from now.
Either that or, with the pressure off, Cork could throw off the shackles and attempt to close the League with a bang.
They may be without Brian O’Driscoll (dislocated shoulder) and Brian Hurley (hamstring), but the Rebels are certainly not lacking for forward power.
Paul Kerrigan is still a deadly finisher with an eye for goal, Peter Kelleher provides a long ball option, and the injury-plagued Colm O’Neill looks back to his best after bagging 0-11 against Derry last weekend.
But Down should take encouragement from Cork’s late collapse against Meath a fortnight ago. Leading by nine points with 25 minutes left, the Rebels were pegged back by the resurgent Royals, albeit with a big wind at their backs.
Whatever Cork’s intentions, Down board the bus knowing that losing is not an option if they are to avoid a second successive relegation.
They should be travelling in the belief that only victory will do but, if they adopt that mindset, something will have to change from a tactical standpoint form the past two weeks.
Losing back-to-back home games is bad enough, but the manner of those reversals against high-flying Kildare and Galway provides the greatest cause of concern heading to Pairc Ui Rinn.
In both games, Barry O’Hagan cut an isolated figure leading the forward line on his own. With so many men committed to the defensive effort, the transition from back to front has been laboured at best, non-existent at worst.
Ryan Johnston was more effective when he played deeper against Galway, and the introduction of his brother Jerome to support O’Hagan could give Down a greater cutting edge.
They are likely to need an improvement on their average return of 13.5 points to leave with anything other than another defeat in Cork tomorrow afternoon.
Expect it to be close, but it’s difficult to see anything other than the Rebels consigning Down to a 2018 spent in Division Three.
Down: M Cunningham; R McAleenan, B McArdle, D O’Hagan; D O’Hanlon, C McGovern, C Mooney; A Carr, P Turley; K McKernan, C Maginn, J Murphy; S Millar, B O’Hagan, R Johnston.