Down can see off Offaly at home and continue promotion push in Division Three
Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down v Offaly (tonight, Pairc Esler, 7pm)
SO far this season, Down have found ways to win tight games and Offaly have found ways to lose them. Mourne county fans will hope that's the way it continues at Pairc Esler tonight.
Victory could see the home side take over at the top of the table but a win for the visitors will see them force their way into the race for promotion in an ultra-competitive third tier.
As the finishing straight comes into view, you could throw a blanket over the top five in Division Three because from leaders Louth to fifth-placed Laois only two points separate the sides with three games to go.
John Maughan's Faithful County side are just off the pace in sixth and those two points came last weekend when they recorded their first win of a frustrating season against Carlow.
But with a few crucial scores here and there, Offaly could be unbeaten this year.
Maughan's men lost by a point to Westmeath in their opener, then drew with Longford before losing to Louth by two points. They'll aim for a big finish and it is worth noting that last year the county looked odds-on for relegation after losing their first four games only to take two wins and a draw in their last three and save their skins.
While Offaly have struggled, Down have recorded three wins on-the-trot and their victories over Sligo and Westmeath came via to last-gasp scores which were set up by battling defensive displays.
Caolan Mooney's goal saw them to victory over the Yeatsmen and then Jerome Johnston's free edged out Westmeath.
Last week's impressive win in Longford was spearheaded by the composed finishing of experienced forward Donal O'Hare who should be too good for most defenders in Division Three. Burren clubman O'Hare finished with 3-2 on the day but the performance of goalkeeper Rory Burns was equally important.
Burns saved a penalty for the second game in succession and his form has seen Down concede just one goal in their last three outings. That defensive solidity has encouraged manager Paddy Tally.
“Rory had an exceptional game at the weekend, his shot-stopping was of the highest standard and we needed that because that game was right in the balance with 15 minutes to go and he pulled off a penalty save,” said Tally.
“Games can swing on momentum as well but that was a big moment for us. Once he saved that penalty it gave us breathing space.
“Generally our defending has been getting better but every game is a new challenge and we know that Offaly have a lot of good players and we know they produce a different challenge and it'll be up to our players to adapt to that and we'll see how they handle it.”
Down are averaging a shade over 11 points a game and Offaly manager John Maughan is expecting the Mournemen to defend in numbers and then look to hurt his side on the break.
“There's no great mystery going into games now because you practically know every player you're going to meet, which creates a level playing field in many respects,” said the Mayo native who has almost three decades' worth of experience in management.
“It requires great patience on the field and great patience in the stands to watch it because invariably the ball is being switched from right to left, left to right, looking for an opening.
“I know Down play a defensive style, that's the modern trend, but they'd be smarter than most in breaking out of defence – they're quick, alert and sharp.”
Down are still some distance away from full strength but Tally indicated this week that Niall Donnelly, Ryan Mallon and Alan Davidson are all nearing full fitness and could be involved tonight. A modest change of fortune for either side will have a huge bearing on the game and Tally expects Offaly to see this game as an opportunity to breathe momentum into their season.
“They are not far away at all and this League is very, very tight,” said the Galbally native.
“If you look across the results in Division Three, most of the games could have swung on a goal and I'm sure Offaly see this game as an opportunity to push on as well.
“It's tight and we expect a very tough game.”
The tactical battle on the sidelines will be intriguing. Offaly's Maughan has returned to management after a decade and he is up against Tally who has been at the forefront of modern football strategizing.
The Faithful county will look to Bernard Allen (18 points in four games) and Anton O'Sullivan (1-6 so far) to propel them to victory but Mourne county manager Tally will set his stall out to deny them space when the ball comes in.
Down will look to counterattack in numbers and O'Hare will once again be the go-to man in their attack. Defeat at home tonight would be a hammerblow to the Mournemen's promotion chances but this is a game they should win and Down get the nod to continue their winning habit.