County focus: Connaire Harrison hoping to return with a bang on Down comeback
STROLLING about in shorts and a shirt, lapping up the 26 degree heat as the Dubai coastline stretches out as far as the eye can see. You nearly have to crane your neck at a right angle sometimes to take in the sheer size of some of the buildings that dominate the spectacular skyline overhead.
The evenings are humid and the bars and restaurants full, the sound of music pumping depending on where you pass. No matter where you turn though, there is something going on - something to do. Even in January, there is a certain kind of buzz about Dubai.
That was last week for Connaire Harrison.
On Monday night he and new wife Jaclyn jetted out to the Middle East for a six-night honeymoon before landing back on home soil late on Sunday.
Tonight he will be at Abbey Grammar School in Newry as Down step up their preparations for this year’s assault on Division Three of the National League.
It may not be Dubai but, if early indications are anything to go by, there will be a bit of a buzz about Newry too as the Paddy Tally era really kicks in.
And after a busy few months leading up to Christmas between travelling back and forth for work in London and his wedding on New Year’s Eve, Harrison is looking forward to getting back at it.
“It was crazy - moreso towards the end of November when it was getting closer to the wedding. It got to the stage too where it was annoying, if you know what I mean; you’d rather be in one place or the other.
“You know yourself, when somebody’s getting married the door never stops, and it was hard then to commit to anything.
“I took a bit of a break out of it because I was playing in London until the 20th of November, and that was straight through from when I went back with Down in the November the year before.
“It was non-stop, so I needed a break. I just took five weeks to myself pretty much, but now it’s important to get the head down and get the work done.”
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Harrison - who moved to London for work purposes following Down’s qualifier exit to Cavan last summer - helped Neasden Gaels land the intermediate title there, before the journey ended at the hands of Dunedin Connolly’s in the All-Britain final.
As a result of his hectic schedule Harrison hasn’t been able to attend any training sessions since Paddy Tally took up the reins in the Mourne County, but the Glasdrumman clubman has been in constant contact with the Down boss.
He was introduced for the final 23 minutes of their final Section C game in the Dr McKenna Cup, a one-sided victory over Queen’s in Newry, but the 2017 Allstar nominee knows there is still plenty of work to be done.
“I’ve been in contact with Paddy, even whenever I was in London, just to let him know what my situation was.
“He’d been trying to get me to training a few nights, it was more or less just to get me back on the field, to get the ball rolling more than anything.
“Against Queen’s I actually didn’t feel too bad considering I hadn’t done a massive lot. I felt sharp enough but fitness wise I’ve a wee bit to do, a good few sessions to catch up on.
“I wouldn’t really have known Paddy from last time [Tally was a coach under Ross Carr and James McCartan] - I was only in for a few trials the first time he was there - but speaking to players, or ex-players, who have been there with Paddy, they always had a great word on him.
“He’s been top class with me so far, likewise the rest of the squad. The boys seem to love having him there so it’s all good at the minute.”
Following a disappointing 2018 that saw them relegated from Division Two before a summer that never got going, Tally is at the start of a rebuilding process with the Mourneman – and Harrison is expected to be central to those plans.
The swashbuckling forward, who will hope to celebrate his 29th birthday this Sunday with a win over Laois in Newry, is one of the more experienced heads on a youthful-looking Down panel.
And a string of impressive performances in the 2017 Championship, his break-out season in county colours, has seen him marked out for special attention ever since.
Donegal veteran Neil McGee wasted little time getting in his ear when the counties met in Clones last summer, with the Gaoth Dobhair man seeing red just 11 minutes in after dropping his knees into Harrison’s back - not that he’s complaining.
If you’re getting watched, it must mean you need to be watched.
“Ach, there’s a fair bit to be honest, but it’s nothing anybody else isn’t getting. If you’re doing something right, you’re going to get attention – people are going to try and get an edge on you, if you want to put it that way.
“Neil McGee’s an experienced defender, he’s been one of the top defenders in the country for a long time. I knew what was coming to me when we were coming in against Donegal; I knew Neil was going to be that way.
“It was just a case of me keeping my cool and staying on the field. I was happy enough, it is what it is - we shook hands after the game and that’s it, it’s gone.”
Despite McGee’s early departure, Donegal still won pulling up, progressing on a 13-point margin after a blistering start.
And Harrison admits there could yet be some similarly tough days ahead before Tally moulds the kind of Down team he wants.
When you get to an Ulster final, you want to be building on that the following year. I think the biggest thing is being consistent. If you’re being honest , the top two or three teams in Ulster, never mind the rest of the country, they’re playing well on a regular basis.
That’s something we’ve struggled to do across a season, never mind two or three years in-a-row, so that’s something to work on.
Obviously you have different scenarios, boys leaving the panel, which sort of unsettles the thing, losing good players that would probably be starting in the team so that doesn’t help matters.
“At this point in time we’re rebuilding, so there’s a possibility there could be more days like that ahead, but it’s a learning curve for everybody in the panel.
“It’s not just as straightforward as going out on the field and doing whatever; you need to put the work in and perform as a team. You need to find the consistency to do that, and I have no doubt Paddy will put a system in place this year that’s going to suit us.
“Hopefully we can build and take that step up.”
HAVING narrowly dodged the bullet in 2017, Down finally fell through the Division Two trapdoor last year – but football’s third tier is no bad place for Paddy Tally to be starting his first inter-county job.
The Galbally man has cast his net wide and is likely to try and bed in some new players through the spring, with experienced men like Mark Poland, Aidan Carr and Peter Turley all having called time.
Down came from nowhere to reach the Ulster final in 2017, but that destination seems a long way away as they build for the weeks and months ahead. How the team knits together through the League will be crucial and, looking at their fixtures, you would have to think that promotion back to Division Two should be a realistic ambition.
The Mourne County’s four home ties are against newly-promoted Laois this weekend, Westmeath and Offaly, before finishing up against Louth at Pairc Esler on the final day. A decent return from those games would give them a solid foundation but, having lost seven of their last nine League games in Newry, an upturn in fortunes on home soil is required.
Away trips take them to Sligo, Longford and the other side to come up from Division Four, Carlow, whose coaching team includes Down native Steven Poacher.
The loss of free-taking half-back Anthony Doherty and livewire wing-forward Shay Millar cannot be downplayed, the same of Burren full-back Gerard McGovern who – like Doherty and Millar – is currently in Australia.
However, experienced figures like Kevin McKernan, Darren O’Hagan, Caolan Mooney, Donal O’Hare and Connaire Harrison will all come back into what the team through the League.
With Millar gone, it is in the attacking area of the field where Down perhaps need the greatest improvement, and the return of Harrison and O’Hare will be a significant boost.
ONES TO WATCH
DOWN boss Paddy Tally spent the autumn months trawling the county as he attempted to get to grips with what is at his disposal in Down.
As a result, plenty of players were trialled, with several seeing game-time during the Dr McKenna Cup. However, with so many being brought into the starting side at the one time, it is difficult to get a true grasp of how they might perform in a more settled team.
Saval forward Pat Havern has been in and out of the panel in the past, and did his chances of an extended run no harm at all with some good performances in the pre-season competition.
Bagged 1-3 against Cavan, a point in defeat to Donegal and 2-3 in Down’s final Section C win over Queen’s University. Fellow forward Conor McGrady also caught the eye with impressive cameos off the bench against Cavan and Donegal.
Full-back Ruairi Wells is a presence at full-back, and the Castlewellan man was probably Down’s best performer against the Breffnimen, while Shane Annett and Ciaran Harney also acquitted themselves well when given the opportunity.
With more experienced men due to come back for the start of the League, Tally will be happy to have strengthened his hand for what he hopes will be a long season.