GAA Football

In midst of anniversaries, Down are looking firmly to the future

All-Ireland winning captain Paddy O'Rourke is heading the new Mourne Academy
Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Cahair O'Kane

OVER the next four years, Down will celebrate some of their most famous achievements, but they will also spend that time building towards future success.

2016 will see the county mark the 25th anniversary of their 1991 All-Ireland win. Next year will be 40 years since Down’s first All-Ireland minor football title. In 2018, they will mark 50 years since the famous 1968 side, which won the third of the county’s three Sam Maguires that decade. Finally, 2019 will have been 25 years since their last major success, the 1994 Ulster and All-Ireland titles.

All those four teams will be honoured across that time, but the main focus for the Mourne county is ending the barren run they find themselves on at present. No Ulster senior football title in 22 years. No Ulster minor football title in 17 years (although there was an All-Ireland in between). Just three provincial U21 titles since the mid-1980s.

It is not a particularly healthy recent roll of honour. They know that themselves. They’re reminded of it often enough. But over the past year-and-a-half, the building blocks for the restoration of Down’s lofty reputation have been laid.

1991 All-Ireland winning captain Paddy O’Rourke was appointed last November to head a steering committee for the new Mourne Academy. By that stage, he had a year under him of working with the county’s development squads.

James McCartan, who only stepped away from the senior job at the end of the 2014 season, has already been tempted back in to try and boost Down’s quest to return to the top table at minor level.

The likes of ’94 captain DJ Kane, professor Niall Moyna (who acts as a consultant) and county development manager Conor O’Toole are also on the steering group: “Two years ago, we launched a consultative programme,” says long-serving Down county secretary Seán Óg McAteer.

“We took in a wonderful man, David Passmore, a senior lecturer in DCU, whose background is Irish hockey. He’s done a really in-depth report, having consulted widely with schools, clubs, former players, people who were interested in Down football.

“In the past, we’ve done four plans in hurling and never one in football. For a county like Down never to have looked at its football from Maurice Hayes’ time…”

That was part of the problem. ‘The Down Way’ brought regular success from 1960 until the mid-90s, give or take an odd blip. But at present, Down are enduring their longest spell without senior success since the years prior to their 1959 Ulster title.

For Newry Mitchel’s man McAteer, one of the keys to bringing the county back to the top table is expanding Gaelic games through the schools: “Currently, we’re in 86 primary schools through a coaching programme. We’d really like to broaden that.

“We’re in some integrated schools, but we’d really like to get into state schools as well. Not to shove anything down anybody’s throat, but to let them sample Gaelic games. To actually just have taster sessions and tell them the story of what Down’s about.

“You go somewhere and someone asks where you’re from, you’ll say county Derry, I’ll say county Down. It’s one thing that unites people. It isn’t a badge of anything; it’s where you’re from. The people from Comber, Saintfield, Newtownards are as much a Down person as anyone from Newry or Downpatrick or Kilcoo.

“We’ve got something there that can be a brand that unites people. That’s something we’d like to explore by telling our story through the communities and schools over the next few years.”

The issues Down face are not unique. Other counties have similar problems. For Derry, it is the city. For Antrim, it’s the middle of Belfast. Donegal have their struggles in Letterkenny.

Soccer and rugby, particularly the growth of the latter, continue to enjoy a duopoly on the youth’s imagination. The bigger the population base, the wider the sporting pallet of the inhabitants.

Take the 2005 All-Ireland minor winning squad. Two “major population centres”, as McAteer puts it, of Newry and Downpatrick provided precisely none of what was, at one stage, a 38-man squad.

In Newry, the Shamrocks and John Bosco are both in Division Three. John Mitchel’s are in Division Four. And yet, out in the hinterlands, Ballyholland, Glenn, Saval and clubs like them thrive in the top flight.

“There’s a problem there definitely, within Newry. There’s a lot of work being done in all of those clubs at underage levels," McAteer added.

“We have to try as a county to allow that work to happen and to develop it at underage through the schools. We have to try and ensure there are as many people as possible in Newry playing Gaelic football and hurling as possible.

“We have to look at Newry and Downpatrick in particular, but there are other urban centres there too. You have Banbridge, Kilkeel, Warrenpoint, all growing towns. You have that area of St Paul’s and Holywood and Newtownards and nobody from those population centres about county panels. That needs to change if we’re going to be successful.

“This year, as part of James’ work with the minors, we’ve set up coaching clinics in Belfast, which run on a weekly basis, targeting young players from around Bredagh, St Paul’s, Carryduff, Drumaness, Darragh Cross and people from the schools in Belfast. It’s not just our usual schools that need to be targeted; it’s all the schools in the Belfast area. In all those schools, there’s people playing Gaelic games, at home or wherever.

“We hope that project will come to fruition and we’ll maybe get a few to county minor panels. We mightn’t get anybody, but at least those boys are exposed to good quality coaching for 10 weeks and the opportunity to get onto a Down minor panel. We have to be creative. We are being imaginative. These things will take time to come."

A passionate McAteer also clarified comments he made at the recent Down convention. In his report, McAteer hit out at the media, suggesting the “ethos of the GAA… is not something of interest” to reporters who also cover soccer and rugby.

However, he told The Irish News earlier this week he respects that people have opinions and that they’re entitled to offer them: “Last year, we were probably getting a bit of a kicking at times. I’m passionate about Down GAA, it’s my life and my work," he said.

“But we have to respect that the people within The Irish News provide a vital outlet for the promotion of our games. We have to be positive about that as well. We saw the value of that when we advertised our club championship games in The Irish News this year and we saw our gates increase. We saw the number of people at our games increase because we positively marketed our games through The Irish News.

“It’s a two-way street. We recognise the work that journalists do in promoting our games. It’s vital that we’re an open house for journalists. There’s no room within Down for us to be a closed house. We have to respect that journalists have a job to do. We mightn’t always agree with what they say, but we have to respect that people have opinions and that they’re entitled to offer them.”

Back to the job in hand and a determined McAteer sees high hopes for Down. The timeframe for Down success? Between seven and 10 years, according to the report produced by David Passmore.

If things go to plan, that is the timeframe inside which Down hope to be back competing for Ulster and All-Ireland titles regularly: “You will get to the top table at different stages in that time, but we need to be consistently there,” said McAteer.

“You’re not always going to win because there’s only ever one team at each age group that will win. But we need to be consistently at the top table.”

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