County focus: Reflecting on Down's year to forget
STORY OF THE SEASON
Fans would like to put last season in a box, bury it deep in the middle of the Mournes and forget about it and that’s what Down need to do - learn and move on.
The season was arguably the worst in the county’s history. Down played 12 games and lost 11 and the solitary win came against St Mary’s in the Dr McKenna Cup. Retirements and the unavailability of key players guaranteed that Eamonn Burns would be up against it from the start in his first season as an inter-county bainisteoir.
Players who could have made a difference including Benny Coulter, Conor Laverty, Dan Gordon, Marty Clarke, Peter Fitzpatrick, Niall Madine, Arthur McConville, Shay McArdle, Packie Downey, Malachy Magee, Luke Howard, Ryan and Jerome Johnston, Benny McArdle and Caolan Mooney featured briefly or not at all because of retirement, injury or, in Clarke’s case, because he was overlooked.
The lack of experience on the pitch and in the dugout cost Down dear and although there were a couple of morale-boosting performances in the league - in Clones against Monaghan and in Castlebar against Mayo - and against Longford in the Qualifiers - the rest of the season was a tale of one-sided beatings.
Down began the year under new boss Burns (who’d replaced Jim McCorry) with Dr McKenna Cup losses to Donegal and Fermanagh before they signed off with victory over the student teachers.
From there, it was straight into Division One and there was no settling-in period. Donegal were the first visitors to Newry and they went home with a 3-15 to 0-7 win. Down showed some promise in their visit to Clones the following weekend. Monaghan won by two points in the end but the performances of forwards Connaire Harrison and Shay McArdle and full-back Conaill McGovern did hint at better days to come.
It proved to be a false dawn, however as Kerry, Roscommon and Dublin all inflicted heavy defeats in the next three games. Another loss, to Cork at Pairc Ui Rinn, followed and Down’s relegation was already sealed by the time they boarded the bus to fulfil their final fixture in Mayo.
With experienced campaigners like Donal O’Hare, Kevin McKernan, Mark Poland and Peter Turley among the scorers, Down gave a decent account of themselves but the westerners won 1-19 to 1-16 in the end.
Down’s 19-point total was easily their best of the campaign – the lack of scores in the side was a worrying trend of the season as Burns opted to pack his defence and limit the damage.
In all the Mourne men used 34 players with 20 different scorers during the League and Donal O’Hare’s 2-14 was the best individual tally. Next best was Connaire Harrison with eight points.
Relegation had been predicted by all and sundry and Burns hoped to make a fresh start in the Ulster Championship as Down travelled to Clones once again to take on reigning provincial champions Monaghan.
Down hadn’t managed a Championship win since they’d beaten Leitrim in 2014 but for the first half-an-hour it was a competitive tussle. The sides were level at 0-6 apiece at one stage but Down collapsed after losing Peter Turley to a second half black card and Monaghan took complete control. The 2-22 to 0-9 defeat was the second heaviest defeat in the county’s history.
Fingers were crossed for a favourable draw in the Qualifiers and Down were pulled out against Longford in Newry. But there was a sense that winning would only have prolonged the agony and in front of a small gathering of die-hard fans the fallen giants bowed out after extra-time. It ended 2-24 to 3-17 and the final whistle brought down the curtain on a miserable season.
Down will hope the only way is up but another tough season, this time in Division Two, is approaching.
WHAT THEY NEED
To get their best 15 players out on the field. Morale and confidence were in short supply and that made it all the more inexplicable that Marty Clarke, an Allstar in 2010, was ignored last season.
The An Ríocht clubman played for Queen’s in the McKenna Cup but his expected recall to county colours never materialised. Neither did the returns of Dan Gordon or Benny Coulter, although the Mayobridge man did train with the panel for a week before calling it quits.
Manager Burns doesn’t have the luxury of leaving Clarke out in the cold. Meanwhile, Burns needs to get Kilcoo’s Jerome and Ryan Johnston back in harness for next season, while Burren pair Shay McArdle and free-taking goalkeeper Cathal Murdock look capable of making an impact at inter-county level.
Along with Peter Turley, Burren clubman Gerard McGovern was one of two players out of 36 used to start every league and Championship game. He quickly established himself as a tenacious man-marker and was handed some very challenging assignments over the course of the season.
Against Dublin at Croke Park, McGovern picked up Diarmuid Connolly and kept him scoreless. Then, on Championship debut, he marked Monaghan Allstar Conor McManus at Clones and restricted the Clontibret star to two points from play.
One of the few success stories for Down in 2016.
Eamonn Burns went from second division Tullylish to managing in the top flight of the National Football League. After defeat to Longford in the Qualifiers, Burns, a Sam Maguire winner with the Mournemen in the 1990s, gave the briefest of interviews to reporters.
When asked about his future he said: “We’re not going to make any knee-jerk reaction. We’ll contemplate over the next week or two and see where we are.”
There was speculation Burns would call it a day, but the Bryansford clubman will return next season hoping for better things.
END OF THE LINE?
Down have said goodbye to a number of stars in recent years, but fans will have their fingers crossed that the few experienced players left in the ranks hang around for at least one more season.
Mark Poland, Kevin McKernan and Aidan Carr are three who have been around for a while and none have indicated they are ready to call it a day just yet.
THE NEW BREED
In the absence of so many experienced campaigners, it became difficult to keep track of all the youngsters thrown in at the deep end during a difficult season. Barry O’Hagan, Gerard McGovern, Sean Dornan, Joe Murphy, Daniel Turley, Marc Reid, Mark McKay, David McKibben, Henry Brown, Gerard Collins and Jonny Flynn were among those who had their first taste of senior inter-county action and they all had their moments in the famous red-and-black.
McKibben (after one start in the league), McGovern, O’Hagan, Murphy, Collins, Flynn and Turley made Championship debuts against Monaghan. After the 19-point defeat manager Burns said: “Everybody will judge the game, people are sitting in the stand will have their own opinion but I have to be mindful of the players I have in the changing room - we had five debutants today and we brought on another two and that’s half your team.
"It is a sharp learning curve and we are on it and we will keep battling.”
Ulster SFC quarter-final: Monaghan 2-22 Down 0-9; All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round 1B: Down 3-17 Longford 2-24 (aet)
TEAM KNOCKED OUT OF ALL-IRELAND
All-Ireland SFC Qualifier round 1B, Pairc Esler, June 25: Down 3-17 Longford 2-24 (aet): M Reid; C McGovern, G McGovern, D O’Hagan; D McKibbin, A Carr, D O’Hanlon; P Turley, K McKernan; R Mallon (0-4), M Poland (0-1), J Murphy; C Maginn (1-1), D O’Hare (2-9, 0-6 frees), B O’Hagan (0-1); Subs: G Collins for McKibbin (44), M McKay for McKernan (53), D Turley for Murphy (54), S Dornan (0-1) for B O’Hagan (62), K McKernan for Maginn (84), B McArdle for Carr (89); Black card: M McKay (78) replaced by H Brown.
2016 NFL DIVISION ONE
Final position: eighth, relegated: Down 0-7 Donegal 3-15; Monaghan 0-13 Down 0-11; Down 0-6 Kerry 0-22; Roscommon 1-12 Down 0-6; Down 1-7 Dublin 1-15; Cork 0-12 Down 0-7; Mayo 1-19 Down 1-16
WHAT THEY SAID
"I’m very disappointed for the boys. I thought they worked very hard today and I thought, at the end of the normal-time, we could have got a result, but that’s the way it goes." - Down manager Eamonn Burns after their Championship exit to Longford.