Down won't have their strongest squad available for Ulster SHC - manager Mickey Johnston
BEATEN Christy Ring semi-finalists Down still have the Ulster SHC to look forward to next month, but manager Mickey Johnston said the Ards men’s season effectively ended in Loughgiel last Saturday afternoon.
Johnston doesn’t expect to have a squad anywhere near full strength for the ailing provincial series as several of his hurlers are heading to America for the rest of the summer.
Down were desperately unlucky to lose to rivals Antrim in a thrilling Christy Ring semi-final at Fr Healy Park last weekend: “The boys will be sore after the Antrim defeat, both physically and mentally, for a while,” said Johnston.
“The Ulster Championship is coming up but, really, it’s only a tournament. The season really is over now for us, to be truthful. Whatever we get from the Ulster Championship, we get, but we’ve lads heading to America, which they are totally right to do. It’s the time to do it.”
For a number of reasons, the Ulster SHC has limped along in recent years and the competition’s prestige was further harmed by the delay of the 2013 provincial final between Antrim and Down, which ended up being played in February 2014.
The inception of the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher All-Ireland competitions have also pushed the Ulster Championship - once a pathway to the Liam MacCarthy Cup quarter-finals - down the list of priorities among its competitors.
And with Antrim participating in the Leinster SHC round-robin series - up until this season after getting relegated - they normally received a bye into the Ulster final, which again damaged the tournament.
The Ulster Council has tried to rejuvenate the series by introducing a relegation/promotion element to the senior Championship in 2016. A weakened Down team will face Armagh in the Ulster semi-final on June 19 - a side they lost to in this season’s NFL Division 2B final, while Antrim and Derry face-off on the same afternoon. The final is scheduled of July 10.
The two beaten semi-finalists will go into a relegation play-off and the winners of the Hurling Shield, featuring the rest of Ulster bar Cavan, will compete in the senior Championhip the following year.
Meanwhile, despite their agonising defeat to Antrim last weekend, Johnston believes Down are on an upward curve: “I think Down hurling people saw this team come of age against Antrim. There was maybe a wee bit of getting to know the lads last year, but I can’t fault them, they put in huge effort," he said.
“If we can stay together, they can do well. But we’re at Christy Ring level. We don’t have any aspirations of playing Leinster Championship or anything like that. People need to get real. That [Christy Ring semi-final] was Ulster hurling at its best.”
Antrim will face Meath in this year’s Christy Ring decider at Croke Park on Saturday, June 4 (5.30pm): “It would have been sweet to have got to Croke Park,” Johnston added.
“I’ve worked with these bunch of fellas for two years now. We were beaten in the Christy Ring semi-final [by Derry] last year as well, by a puck of a ball. We knew, come the better weather and the fields drying out, the hurling would be there.
"I’ve every confidence in these players and the management team and their ability.”