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GAA Football

Down goalkeeper Michael Cunningham says Ulster final opponents Tyrone will be a step up in class

Down's goalkeeper Michael Cunningham has been a key player in the Mournemen's Championship rise

DOWN goalkeeper Michael Cunningham will set Tyrone friendships aside later this month as the Mournemen bid to win their first Ulster title since 1994.

The Castlewellan clubman hopes that a solid gameplan, hard graft and pride in the Down jersey will get them over the finishing line against Tyrone in Clones on July 16.

Cunningham hailed the character of the current Down squad after they toppled Armagh and Monaghan to reach this year’s provincial decider.

“The character of this team is unbelievable,” said Cunningham.

“It’s an absolute honour and privilege to wear the Down jersey and it’s good to put in good performances when you are wearing it because the jersey is only lent to you. You only have it for a short period of time.”

The Mournemen upset the odds in both their Ulster bouts to date but acknowledged Tyrone will be a step up in class.

“Tyrone are in the top two or three teams in Ireland,” he said.

“I’ve a load of friends in the Tyrone team – the likes of Conall McCann, all good lads – but it’ll be another step up and hopefully we will put a plan in place to beat Tyrone and on the day we’ll try and execute that.”

Cunningham, who made his Championship debut against Leitrim in 2014, pinpointed Down’s second-half comeback to steal a draw in their NFL Division Two game against Cork as the turning point of their season.

“No-one gave us a chance this year. Against Cork, we were four points down at half-time. It was backs-against-the-wall. But we got a result and we got a result against Armagh and we got a result against Monaghan.

“We knew we could beat Monaghan if we put the game-plan in place that the management team gave us and we did it. Never once did we panic, never once did we turn on each other. It just shows the resolve in this team.”

Cunningham insists there is no secret to Down’s remarkable rise this summer other than hard work on the training field.

“Everybody is at training a half hour before it starts. Everyone is doing their work. Maybe results weren’t going our way at the start of the year but we knew if we kept working hard it would pay dividends.

“The harder you work the luckier you get.

“We got a bit of luck at the end of the Monaghan match when Drew Wylie kicked the ball wide and Donal [O’Hare] got the score for us at the end. We worked so, so hard and I think we deserve to be in an Ulster final.

“We went into the Monaghan match and no-one gave us a hope or a prayer but we had raw belief.”

Cunningham added: “Eamonn Burns has taken a lot of flak. There’s no secret with Eamonn. He works hard like anyone else. The man deserves so much credit. He’s just kept his head down even though everyone was slating him, but he kept working hard.

“You’re going to have critics in any walk of life, so you just keep working hard and eventually it will pay off.”

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