GAA Football

Mourne legend Blaney encouraged by Down's summer

Former Down star Greg Blaney

HE remains as lithe though this were 1994, but Greg Blaney has witnessed the sport marginalise men of his grandeur since his playing days.

The ball-playing centre-forward had become almost intolerable, an unnecessary luxury in an era of spacelessness.

“Dan McCartan used to say, the longer you quit, the better you get,” he smiles modestly.

“The game has changed and there’s a lot of plusses with that and some negatives. There’s an awful lot more thought put into it now.

“When I was playing, forwards would get the ball and do their own thing. Now it’s well thought out about getting it into the scoring zone and getting the shooters on the ball.

“A lot of it’s intriguing, and the conditioning and training has moved on, players today are fitter. But there’s a certain predictability about a lot of the football now. I’d miss the unpredictability of it, and the one-on-one battles.”

Yet for one wonderful evening in Armagh, the unpredictability came back. Down tore up not only the script but the Monaghan defensive structure, and they did it by traditional methods.

“Down particularly threw the shackles off and went at it. It was less predictable and it was more spontaneous. I really, really enjoyed it. But then when your team’s winning…”

Last year was all about nostalgia. Blaney and the rest of the ’91 squad were meeting regularly at various anniversary events to mark 25 years since their All-Ireland success.

Among them was of course Eamonn Burns, who then seemed so embattled in a thankless job. Footballers can at times be merciless in their ‘banter’ but Blaney says that the subject was kept off the agenda.

“I think anyone involved in football knows how difficult managing a team is, especially when things aren’t going as well as one would want them to.

“We were definitely looking back rather than at the present. We didn’t dwell too much on it.”

Expectation can find itself in a separate universe to the reality in Down at times and as a result, Burns found himself taking it in the neck from every direction.

“It can be a double-edged sword,” said Blaney.

“Sometimes when Down do well, the media can build us up to an awful degree, and when things aren’t going so well we get hammered more. It comes with the territory.

“The last couple of years, Eamonn has come through the mill. Absolutely delighted for the county and him personally that all the hard work’s resulted in a few good performances.”

This time twelve months ago, Down’s summer was already long over, beaten before the end of June by Longford in a thrill-a-minute Qualifier.

It was a hard end to a very sobering year and when things were slow to start this campaign again, the dissent began to grow.

But a strong finish to the League breathed a fresh air of confidence through the Down camp and now they find themselves back in an Ulster final for the first time in five years.

In a way it was almost typical Down, to drag themselves out of anonymity and back into the limelight when it’s least expected.

That ’91 success ended a barren spell of ten years without an Ulster title, while the 2010 run to the All-Ireland decider came from nowhere after 16 years in the shadows.

“I think it’s a bit different from where we won the All-Ireland in ’91 because right throughout the 80s even though we hadn’t won, we were realistic contenders for a number of years.

“This last number of years, our League and Championship results would have been poor enough. Teams go through fallow spells and we’ve been going through one.

“While I’m delighted we beat Monaghan, I wouldn’t be getting carried away and I don’t think anyone within Down would be that it’s all ‘here we go, everything’s rosy in the garden’.

“But certainly the last couple of performances were very encouraging,” said the Carryduff man, who was involved as a selector during Paddy O’Rourke’s tenure as manager.

He might be a St Brigid’s clubman now but like the rest, he will proudly walk into Clones on Sunday with his red and black on show.

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