Down boss Eamonn Burns hoping for Ryan Johnston return when Cork visit Newry
KILCOO forward Ryan Johnston could return to the Down squad for Sunday’s clash with Cork at Pairc Esler.
Johnston hasn’t featured for the Mournemen this year after missing his club’s Ulster championship meeting with Derry’s Slaughtneil in October because of a metatarsal injury.
There were fears that the talented playmaker could miss the entire Division Two campaign but Down manager Eamonn Burns is hoping to have him back for the visit of Ronan McCarthy’s Rebels.
“Ryan’s fitness levels are improving but he has a bit of work to do and he knows that,” said Burns.
“He’s a very pacey player and we’re hopeful that he could be available against Cork, we just have to see how it pans out this week.”
If Johnston does return he’ll slot back into a winning team after Down began their campaign with a morale-boosting victory over Louth last Sunday.
Meanwhile, Cork lost at home to newly-promoted Tipperary but the Munster men will travel north having dominated this fixture over recent seasons. Since the 2010 All-Ireland final – which Cork won by a point – the Rebels had won four League meetings on-the-trot before Down broke their losing streak with a gutsy fightback last season to claim a vital draw at Páirc Uí Rinn.
That point ultimately preserved Down’s Division Two status but Burns is well aware of the task facing his men in the first of the three home games of this campaign.
“It’s a home game for us and it’ll be a different kettle of fish altogether,” said Burns after Sunday’s six-point win over Pete McGrath’s Louth.
“We went there last year and got a result that kick-started our season so we’ll be expecting a tough game from Cork.”
Darren O’Hagan returned to action in Drogheda last Sunday. The experienced Clonduff defender had been away on honeymoon after his marriage to Down camogie star Paula Gribben, and was introduced in the second half as Down held off a late fightback from the Wee county.
“Darren has been back a couple of weeks,” Burns explained.
“His fitness level need to be upped but he has been playing well at training and I thought, with 20-25 minutes to go he could give us a bit of a shift which he did and fortunately for us it worked out okay.”
Also introduced on Saturday were experienced Burren pair Donal O’Hare and Kevin McKernan while Bryansford’s David McKibbin saw action in the second half.
“We brought on a lot of ball-players, we brought on lads who can carry the ball and use it and punch holes which was important into the wind,” said Burns.
“I thought our midfield (Niall Donnelly and Conor Poland) played very hard in the first half and really well in the second. Niall had to go off with an injury and David McKibbin came on and I thought he did well.”
The Down manager had a special word of praise for League debutants Colm Flanagan and Aaron Morgan. Castlewellan’s Flanagan settled very quickly in the full-back line while Kilcoo’s Morgan was a combative presence in the middle third where he passed the ball with calm authority and scored two first half points.
“Colm had a good McKenna Cup and so did Aaron who I thought played well too,” said Burns.
“It’s all about strengthening the squad and building a panel that can compete further down the line because obviously we need to pick up League points and stay in this division – that’s very important.”