Queen's first up as Down look to make fresh start in McKenna Cup opener
Dr McKenna Cup Section A: Down v QUB (tomorrow, RGU Downpatrick, 2pm)
WITH 36 players from the Mourne county involved (Down’s panel of 26, plus 10 of the students) as well as both managers, tomorrow’s Group A opener in Downpatrick certainly has a local feel to it.
Like all the games in this competition, success has to be measured in relative terms but a win would mean a lot to Down given their terrible 2016. The Mournemen’s only success last year was a win against St Mary’s University in their final game in this competition and it was followed by nine straight losses – seven in Division One and two in the Championship.
So Eamonn Burns’s side could do with a victory tomorrow so they can start to move on from those dark days and they should be capable of seeing off QUB outfit that is short on experience.
Queen’s manager James McCartan will have an eye on a demanding Sigerson Cup opener against DCU and he does have Marty Clarke at his disposal tomorrow.
Alongside the 2010 All-Ireland finalists is Armagh trio Aidan Rushe, Shea Heffron and Ciaron O’Hanlon and Fermanagh’s raiding wing-back James McMahon and they backbone a squad that includes players from six Ulster counties.
McCartan’s former Down team-mate Benny Coulter expects the Mournemen to win and begin to build towards the more important business of Division Two.
“The Queen’s game will be the easiest of the three, with no disrespect to them,” said Coulter.
“They don’t have the big names Jordanstown have. Bar Marty and a few others, Queen’s are like a really good club team. That will probably help them come Sigerson time, but for me Down should be getting off to a good start this weekend and we play Derry next Sunday in Newry.
“I would expect Down to beat them and then we’ll go to Armagh and whoever wins that will probably qualify for the semi-finals. I’d want Down to win all three group games and get into the semi-finals.”
There are three distinct scenarios for Down fans tomorrow. Best case: Down win by 10 points or more; Medium case: QUB win but the 10 Down players are outstanding; Worst case: QUB win and none of their Down players are involved.
Coulter, now manager of his native Mayobridge, is firmly in the ‘best case’ camp.
“I think it’s going to be a decent year for Down,” he said
“They have a lot of boys with the experience of last year behind them and, on paper, the squad looks pretty good.
“My clubmate Cathal Magee is back in there and he’s a very good player and Down have gone very well in pre-season, I think they beat Louth pretty well and from what I heard they were moving well. So I’d be positive enough.”
Down manager Burns has included three players from intermediate champions Bredagh as well as several forwards who showed attacking promise last season like Sean Dornan, Connaire Harrison and Barry O’Hagan.
“Barry is a good player and Sean is a very good club player in Down – whether he can translate that onto the county scene is the challenge for him now,” said Coulter.
“From what I’ve heard, the Bredagh lads are good players and then there’s the likes of Darren O’Hagan in defence. So I think we have the strongest panel available to us and I think Eamonn has most of the best players in Down playing with the exception of Marty (Clarke).”
It is understood that Burns will have four players – Ryan and Jerome Johnston, Darragh O’Hanlon and Paul Devlin – available although none are named in his squad for tomorrow’s game. Neither is Mark Poland while Kevin McKernan is involved with St Mary’s and Connor Maginn is recovering from injury.
“Daryl Branagan and Aaron (both Kilcoo) would have been two great additions to the panel too but I don’t think they’re going to be available so you have to move on without them,” added Coulter.
“For me the two Johnstons would be the first two names on the teamsheet – they are two quality players.
“Paul Devlin and Darragh (O’Hanlon) would certainly be pushing for starting positions too. It’s good to have the Kilcoo boys on the panel because they bring a winning mentality to the squad.”
Coulter added optimistically: “I’d be pretty confident of Down finishing third or fourth in Division Two and beating Armagh in the Championship.”
Only time will tell whether his bold prediction comes true but victory tomorrow is essential if Down are to come close to fulfilling it.