GAA Football

Stone men make their mark for Down

Mark Poland was a leader on the pitch for Down. Pic: Seamus Loughran.
Andy Watters

FREEZING sheets of sleet swept across the Athletic Grounds on a horrible February night in 2014.

The floodlights swayed in the gale as Armagh and Down locked horns on the pitch below.

The Mournemen trailed until their captain stroked home his second goal to win the game (2-7 to 2-5) at the death.

As the ball hit the net, Mark Poland wheeled away in delight. He knew the auld enemy had been slain on their home turf and he knew how much that meant.

Not long after the final whistle, Poland stood shivering in the press box as journalists asked question after question.

“Here, are you alright there Mark? Do you want a coat?” asked a sympathetic hack, after a while.

“Nah, I’m dead on,” he replied.

His pride in the sodden red and black jersey he wore kept the cold at bay.

That was typical of Poland who led and lifted the men around him with his skill and tenacity at centre half-forward over a decade with his county.

He retired last year and, after giving so much, he should have been able to choose how it ended with his county. But, like so many other county stalwarts, that’s not how it worked out.

By 2017, with his younger brother Conor also a part of the Down squad, he’d been reduced to playing cameo roles, often coming on when the game was already won or lost.

The Down management decided he’d lost a yard of pace and nothing he did could change their minds.

“I felt I was motoring well in training but the management made an assumption that my legs were going,” said Mark, now 34.

“I found that out afterwards but I had it in my head and that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t go back last year. I was asked to go back and Conor being there was one of the biggest factors for going back. I wanted to play along with him but I went to a meeting in the Burrendale and it just wasn’t for me.

“I just didn’t see myself featuring at all no matter how well I went at training. I spoke to somebody after it who was close to the panel and that was the assumption that was made. I don’t think it had any substance and boys who were at training and saw me in action could tell you that.

“It was frustrating, really frustrating, I was coming on in games when the games were over and I felt I could have played a bigger role that year.”

He walked away with a heavy heart but don’t get the impression that he wanted a song and dance made out of him. He understands how it works and what annoyed him was that he had more in him and he wasn’t allowed to give it.

“You deserved better,” I observed.

“That’s not for me to say but that’s the way it ended,” he replies.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t expecting anything back. I gave up my time and played and you do it because you want to, you don’t do it for claps on the back.

“It was disappointing, I’m not going to lie, and looking back now it probably eats away at me a bit more seeing the way the boys are now and the set-up they have in place but you can’t turn back time unfortunately.

“At the same time if somebody had said to me when I started out that I would have played for the years I did and captained my county and represented my province then I would have snapped your hand off.

“If we had won all the finals I played in then I would have walked away with a nice enough haul of medals (including senior and U21 All-Irelands). I picked up an Ulster U21 and a couple of Railway Cup medals but with Down, the friendships I made over the years… It was very pleasing and worthwhile.

“There’s boys I will be in contact with forever and I wouldn’t have come across them only for the football and now I’m getting to work with the younger lads in the county (with the Down minors) and hopefully they progress because I feel they have a management team in place now that can really bring the county on.”

The Polands are a dyed-in-the-wool GAA family. Mark’s dad John was a Down minor who won an Ulster U21 medal with the county in 1984. It was John and the late, great Ambrose Rogers senior who instilled the passion for football in Mark and he made his senior debut for Longstone aged 15.

“The changingrooms in Longstone were like going out for war,” he says.

“That’s just the way it was, we’re very passionate when it comes to football.”

Having been brought up in nearby Kilkeel, he moved to his dad’s native ‘Stone’ when he was in P7 and soon struck up a lasting friendship with Ambrose Rogers junior, who jokes: “He just started following me about and then we got friendly.”

The pair of them got into some memorable scrapes together.

“I remember us out on the tractor,” Mark recalls.

“I spied rabbits in the field. I says: ‘Look at them rabbits’ and he turned round and put the tractor through the ditch and knocked the stone wall down.

“We had to go and tell his da and he went through us for a short cut. Then big Ambrose went out and he built that wall up again himself. Pure, brute force… He lifted every stone and put it back up.”

Ambrose Rogers senior was a legend for his club and county and his sudden death 20 years’ ago at the age of 39 was a tragedy that the Longstone people will never get over.

But his memory endures and continues to inspire the club to punch above their weight on the field.

“I remember Ambrose coming home in 1991 (after Down had won the All-Ireland) with the socks pulled up and the collar up,” Mark recalls.

“He was just my idol. He was the pied piper; he was the one that set in stone what we have gone on to do. He moulded us and you never forget him.

“There was a group of us who were in around 14 to 18 when big Ambrose died and we all came through together. I think his death motivated that group to go on – we were in championship finals and league finals and we probably took from him what we have now. He took no bullshit and he set the standard for the club.

“If there was any arsing about at training boys would have been on your case and you would have been on younger boys’ case. We always think of him when we’re playing football.”

That single-minded determination quickly brought him to the attention of the Down selectors. Starting off as a corner-forward, he gradually developed into a combative, play-maker at number 11 who knitted the team that went all the way to the All-Ireland final in 2010 together.

“I was just lucky the way it worked out,” he says, modestly.

“You need a lucky break and I got it for Down. One of the reasons I wanted to play centre half-forward was watching Mickey Walsh, from Mayobridge, coming up in the 1999 Down minor team and in the senior team.

“He picked up injuries and then Liam Doyle, another real player, picked up injuries. I played with Doyler when he was probably going through the pain barrier but he was just class. He was different gravy.

“Would I have got the chance if them boys had stayed injury-free? I probably wouldn’t have but things kicked off for me in 2010 and, when I got my chance, I grew into it.”

Conor Poland was only one when Ambrose Rogers senior returned to Longstone with his All-Ireland winners’ medal back in 1991. The youngest of the three Poland brothers (middle son Cormac was a long-serving full-back for the club) he stands a few inches taller than Mark, the eldest, and has developed into a formidable midfielder for his county.

His career with Down took off just as Mark’s was coming to a premature end.

In 2011 they were listed to start a McKenna Cup game against Antrim in Casement Park but tragically their grandfather died from a heart attack outside the ground.

“It wasn’t meant to be that night,” says Mark.

“In 2017 Conor came on for me when I got busted in the Ulster final (against Tyrone) and that really marked the end of my county career.”

“I would rather have been on the field with him but it was just one of those things, it was a freak incident and we couldn’t really do much about it,” said Conor.

A plasterer by trade, county football had taken a back seat when he was forced to move to London to find work in 2012.

“Looking back now, I probably should have tried to stay at home but at the time I had no choice,” he explains.

“At home things weren’t good in construction so I was forced into it.”

He played with London’s Neasden Gaels for a while but the bus-tube-bus ordeal of travelling to training made it too difficult for him and, with Longstone short of numbers, he flew home at weekend’s to line out for the ‘Cloc Fada’ club that nestles between the mountains and the sea. Down called him up when he returned home permanently in 2016.

“I went to the Down games before Mark was playing,” says Conor.

“I was going to watch Benny Coulter and then Ambrose and Mark broke into the team and they inspired me, they definitely did. When they made it I thought: ‘I want to do that too’.”

He was a regular in midfield as Down missed out on promotion from Division Three by a single point on scoring difference this year. Going up would have been an invaluable confidence boost for an improving young side but they put the disappointment behind them and went on to push Armagh to the pins of their collars in a thrilling Ulster Championship quarter-final derby in Newry.

They recovered from losing the game by a point after extra-time to beat Tipperary in the first round of the Qualifiers last Sunday and set up a round two tie with perennial Sam Maguire challengers Mayo next Saturday.

“Conor is 28 now and he’s in his prime,” said Mark.

“He should definitely be out for another four or five years and there are good young players coming through with a good man in charge to oversee the whole thing.

“Who knows where they’ll go? That confidence is always there that Down teams can produce and it has been too long for us.”

That victory over Tipperary – an established Division Two outfit who were All-Ireland semi-finalists just three seasons ago – should give Down’s players the belief that progress and success are in their hands if they stick together and continue to work hard under Paddy Tally’s astute management.

“Down are in a very good place I think,” said Conor.

“This is Paddy’s first year and we should have got to the League final. In the Championship we have done well and, looking forward, the U20s are doing well and in the senior panel there’s a lot of young boys who have shown well.

“There’s the likes of me, Darren O’Hagan and Connaire Harrison who are 27-28 so we’ve all a good few years left. The management have been brilliant, bringing the young players through and they really believe in them.”

Next Saturday, James Horan’s Mayo come to Newry. The westerners are the National League champions and they’ll line-out with stars all over the field – Lee Keegan, the O’Connors, the O’Sheas, Andy Moran…

Of course they are favourites but, deep down, the home side will never accept that they’re underdogs because there’ll always be belief in the Mournes that the next great run is just one performance away.

It’s a confidence inspired by the heroes of the ’60s and the ’90s and men who’ve carried on the torch but never got the rewards they deserved. Men like Mark Poland.

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