Down still upbeat despite defeats says Kilcoo's Jerome Johnston
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup, Section A, round three: Down v QUB (Pairc Esler, 8pm tonight)
A DEAD rubber for both these teams – but Jerome Johnston insists there's still a spring in the step of the hosts ahead of their League campaign.
The Kilcoo attacker is just happy to be starting matches at this time of year and maintains that Down's confidence has not been knocked by defeats to Cavan and Donegal:
"This is what the McKenna Cup is for, to give boys chances. The 26th of January [the Division Three opener at home to Laois] is what everybody is building towards. If we can keep building and be in a good position at the start of the League then that's the main aim for the team.
"There's a lot of lads have come in, all the debutants have contributed well. It's a big change for them."
Different for him too, as he points out: "This is probably the first year since 2015 that I've had a pre-season, so it's good to get it into the legs more than anything else."
Various injuries have afflicted him and he's hoping for better luck on the fitness front from now on: "It's just you have those runs; I've just had mine in the middle of my career, so hopefully, touch wood, that's the end of them now.
"I've just turned 26. My main thing at the minute is trying to stay injury-free; with that comes more games under your belt. I want to be injury-free, be available as much as I can, and take it from there."
The appointment of the highly-rated Paddy Tally as manager has given the county a lift, Johnston says: "There's no doubt there's a mood of optimism. People are excited, as you would be with change. You'd be ambitious. Everyone is looking forward, there's a good mood in the camp, and defeats won't take away from that.
"For a lot of the boys it's the first time playing together. For different reasons before Christmas it was hard to get everybody together, there were some boys away… We'll develop."
His brother Ryan has also started both games so far, both at wing-back, but Jerome says that's not a stretch for his sibling: "He likes that, he grew up as a wing-back, then once he hit 18, 19, it all changed. There's more attacking at wing-back, or every bit as much anyway, as wing-forward the way the game has moved on and developed."
Down will still want to end their pre-season on a high, and should be able to do so against a Queen's side that has struggled so far, well-beaten by both Donegal and Cavan.
Former Down player Shane Mulholland has been running the rule over plenty of players ahead of their Sigerson Cup tie against Maynooth and will probably settle for not suffering any serious injuries to his players tonight.