#Last20Years: Down's best team from the last two decades
In a nine-part series, Cahair O'Kane selects his best 15 footballers to represent each Ulster county over the past 20 years. First up: Down
1. Brendan McVeigh
IT had to be a McVeigh, but the question is which one? Mickey had been a magnificent custodian from 1995 until 2007, and was incredibly unfortunate not to win an Allstar. But Brendan stepped in and was inspirational in Down’s run to the 2010 All-Ireland final, when he did win the Allstar. It seems cruel to pick one over the other, but Brendan just edges it.
2. Darren O’Hagan
DURING what has largely been a lull period for Down football, Darren O’Hagan has stood out as someone that would have taken his place on any of the county’s great teams. He’s been trusted with the big man-marking roles by successive managers, but occasionally he gets let off the leash to go and play at wing-back, where he can cause teams serious trouble going the other way.
3. Dan Gordon
THERE were days when he could rule the edge of his own square, yet it almost feels harsh to judge Gordon solely on his performances at full-back. It was only ever a makeshift that he was asked to fill in 2010, which just so happened to bring the scrutiny of a run to the All-Ireland final. He was known to be effective at full-forward – remember particularly that drawn Ulster final against Tyrone – and was seen around midfield too. Never let the side down no matter which job he was given.
4. Damien Rafferty
ONE of the more unsung members of the Mourne side that reached the 2010 All-Ireland final, Rafferty was held in the greatest of esteem by his team-mates. A teak-tough corner-back, he was the man James McCartan entrusted with so many of the big jobs, not least trying to shackle Colm Cooper in the famous quarter-final win over Kerry. His career was cut short by a recurring groin injury that forced him to retire in 2012. Edges out Benny McArdle.
5. Caolan Mooney
THE early part of his career was lost to the AFL after Collingwood plucked him from the successful St Colman’s teams and took him away from Down. But since his return in 2014, he’s been arguably the one man on the Down team that opposition teams get themselves into a twist trying to stop. His pace is truly frightening and his eye for a score makes him a menacing wing-back. Squeezes in ahead of Declan Rooney.
6. Liam Doyle
AS was the case with just too many of that Down generation, Liam Doyle was an outstanding talent who was simply tormented by injury. Having captained the minors to an All-Ireland in ’99, he would retire in 2015 but spent so much of the time in between sidelined. He was the ideal man for the troublesome number six shirt and when he was fit, there were none better. From 2007 until 2011, he played very little football, missing the 2010 run altogether. Kept trying and only gave in at the age of 33.
7. Conor Garvey
FOR the few years when he was a regular in the team, Down had no better defender than Conor Garvey. Between 2009 and 2013, he was one of the best about. Although he could have comfortably done a job in the full-back line, he played the majority of his football at number seven. Always good for a score, he lost a chunk out of his career after suffering a serious eye injury in 2013, but came back to briefly play in the red and black again after recovering.
8. Kevin McKernan
MARKED himself out as a superb talent during the 2010 season, where he threatened to follow in the footsteps of his father Brendan in winning an All-Ireland. Excelled at centre-back that year, and returned there in 2019, but has played all manner of roles in the time in between. Always loved a good Hollywood score off the outside of the right boot, a technique he perfected. An outstanding reader of the game.
9. Ambrose Rogers
THE biggest regret that hangs over Down football from 2010 is that Ambrose Rogers wasn’t fit to play because of a cruciate injury. He was such a guiding figure at midfield for the Mournemen and in such good form before the injury that in the context of a one-point defeat, they have a good case to rue his absence. Called in at 19 by Paddy O’Rourke, his performances saw him emerge from his great father’s shadow and become an outstanding footballer in his own right - but another whose injuries took away the best of him.
10. Danny Hughes
DANNY Hughes always felt that he was more of a natural finisher than ending up out at number 10, where he played most of his county football. But he bought into the wing-forward role in a big way in 2010, and was outstanding. Fanatical about his conditioning, Hughes scored three points in the All-Ireland final that year and picked up an Allstar for his displays.
11. Marty Clarke
TO all intents and purposes, Marty Clarke played one full season for Down at the peak of his powers. But given the season that it was, and the impact he had on it, it’s impossible not to include him in the team. While his GAA career was largely lost to the AFL, Clarke returned home in 2010 and took over as playmaker and free-taker. They would never have been in an All-Ireland final without him. Only played fleetingly beyond his second return from the AFL as he struggled with illness that eventually forced him to retire.
12. Conor Maginn
THERE’S not much room in the modern game for the archetypal centre-forward, but Conor Maginn continues to defy the sport’s attempts to get rid of him and his kind. A very deft footballer, Maginn has dictated so much of Down’s attacking play in recent years. Rarely finished a game without a score, but it was largely his playmaking ability that marked him out.
13. Donal O’Hare
IN 2017, when The Irish News compiled a list of the top championship scorers still playing in Ulster, Donal O’Hare was 11th. But of them all, his average points per game came second to only Sean Quigley. The Burren forward is a deadly marksman, and indeed this year was arguably his best ever in Down colours. With a keen eye for goal, his numbers speak for themselves.
14. Benny Coulter
PROBABLY Down’s best player of the last 20 years, Coulter was just one of those unmarkable talents. The pace, the willingness to take men on, and the finishing to back it up, he tormented defenders across the land. Has scored the most goals in the history of the Ulster Championship. Made his senior debut as a minor and went on to captain the county play in five International Rules series’ for Ireland.
15. Mark Poland
MADE his championship debut against Sligo in 2006 but it took him a while thereafter to establish himself. He only really came to prominence in 2010, helped by that goal in the first minute against Kerry, but from there until the end of his career in 2017, he was one of their most inventive attacking resources. Had the ability to carve defences open with his vision, and was a good finisher.