GAA Football

Burns can't be excused but Down malaise runs much deeper

Down manager Eamonn Burns. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

IT was with the restructure of the National Football Leagues in 2008 that Down last found themselves dropped to the third tier.

Following Sunday's demoralising defeat in Clare, the prospect hovers menacingly above them once more. From two of their three most winnable fixtures, Eamonn Burns' side have returned nul points and looked increasingly starved of the inspiration needed to survive.

Damien Turley, Danny Savage, Ryan Mallon and goalkeeper Gary McMahon all left the panel last week ahead of the trip to the Banner county.

The Kilcoo contingent has become increasingly perplexed at their collective omission. There are those from the club who haven't committed to county duty this year but there is still a certain wonder about how the five-in-a-row county champions had no representation in Down's starting line-up in Ennis, particularly when Darragh O'Hanlon and Ryan Johnston were among the travelling party.

In one respect, Eamonn Burns is no different from any other inter-county manager. If Dublin were to lose later in the year, people would question Jim Gavin's selection and tactics. It is not an arena for those of the thin skinned variety.

They may fancy themselves against Meath at home, and their McKenna Cup win over Derry offers optimism for the trip to Owenbeg, but the bookmakers don't fancy their chances. Down are currently 1/5 on to suffer successive relegations - a fate that has, in fairness, befallen many through the years.

Their malaise, though, runs particularly deep. From every darkened corner of a broken establishment points a finger in a different direction.

Management. Players. County Board. Clubs. Coaches. Even expectation, that invisible friend-turned-enemy.

There is blame to apportion, because the standards that Down have traditionally held are nowhere near being met in so many respects.

Some of the questions being asked of the current management team may have validity but there is a bit of plausible deniability to be offered as well.

These things do not happen by accident. Certainly not now, in this semi-professional era.

The county's atrocious record at minor level, barring the out-of-the-blue 2005 All-Ireland success, is well established.

18 years without a provincial title can be broken down into even more harrowing terms.

If you take the 2009 season out, where they reached the Ulster final, Down have won just four Ulster minor Championship games in the last decade. 2009 was their only appearance in a final in that time.

St. Colman's Newry and Abbey CBS have won just three MacRory Cups between them since 1998. Burren's Ulster minor club success this year was the county's first since Rostrevor in 2004.

The under-21s haven't won a game in four years.

So there are obvious structural issues. For years, clubs have declined to send their best players to county development squads.

It would be a commonly held view in the county that they felt the quality of coaching was below the standard offered by the clubs themselves.

Those minor teams that have under-performed have done so because the players are reaching the age of 17 under-developed and under-prepared in the sense of playing inter-county football.

South Down and east Down regional under-14 squads have long been in position but rather than being centrally managed, they've been left to the regional boards to run their own way. That lack of joined-up thinking climbs the ladder the whole way to senior and beyond.

When Jim McCorry was made senior manager ahead of the 2015 season, channels of communication were opened.

They didn't get much chance to breathe when McCorry was forced out for ruffling a few feathers in a bid to do things his way.

The need for a pathway from minor through to senior football was underlined by the fact that there wasn't a single under-21 player that year that was deemed physically ready for senior football.

But the senior, under-21 and minor management teams also found that trying to get the county's development squads to engage in building a unity was more troublesome than it ought to have been.

A distinct lack of strength and conditioning work at the younger age groups has been cruelly apparent. In an era where the athleticism of minor teams has reached frightening levels, Down have been found physically wanting on an annual basis.

For too long, they accepted mediocrity. There was this attitude of ‘The Down Way will sort us out'.

But the Down way of recent years has been to send their minor teams in against under-17s from stronger counties like Dublin, creating a false confidence.

The harsh reality is that while others are making headway, Down's under-15 development squads have been paired up with the weaker counties at regional blitzes.

Efforts are being made. Rome was not built in a day. The appointment of Paddy O'Rourke to the head of the development squads in 2015 was a good move. Daniel McCartan, highly rated as a blossoming coach, being introduced into the minor setup is also a positive.

But the minors can only be as good as what's in front of them, and if the development squads continue to flounder then Down will continue to play catch-up.

The push on fundraising efforts through Club Down, with Ross Carr at the helm, is long overdue.

Down haven't exactly been flush with investment in recent years and the GAA has increasingly become a world of haves and have nots.

Tyrone, right now, have. A beaming Mark Conway jumped from the foreword on Club Tyrone's annual report. Their fundraising was the biggest source of income in Tyrone last year, raising over £280,000 for the county.

Such initiatives have untold potential, particularly if a bit of success happens to fall your way.

That doesn't look viable in the next year or two. Like other counties, they would maintain that ‘the quality is there', but Kilcoo's untouchable status pours cold water on that, particularly in the light of their failure to win that elusive Ulster club title.

This is ground zero for Down. And it's only if they rebuild on a solid foundation, which includes a much stronger county board relationship with the clubs, that they can start to look back up the hill.

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