Down's Conor Woods targeting small improvements for Allianz Hurling League campaign
A Division 2B title, and with it promotion, to be followed by an appearance at Croke Park in the Christy Ring Cup final – maybe even a victorious appearance with a bit more promotion thrown in. That would make for a pretty perfect 2017 for Down.
It’s not something new manager Marty Mallon – or anyone in the camp – will be trumpeting as their goals for the year. It all comes across a bit too ambitious; the plans a bit too well laid. But why shouldn’t they set their sights so high? Last year nearly brought Down all of the above. A few bounces their way and two thirds of it would have been theirs at least.
First came the League, which they opened with a win over Armagh at the Athletic Grounds and negotiated their way through with just one defeat – away to Mayo. When the final came around they faced Armagh again, but lost by two points having played the last 25 minutes with 14 men after John McManus was red carded.
Onto the Christy Ring Cup and a semi-final meeting with Antrim in Loughgiel, where Down led 0-13 to 0-7 at the break and played the better hurling through the afternoon. But they ended up losing by four having seen Antrim ’keeper Chris O’Connell brilliantly deny a 70th minute goal for Conor Mageean (inset) that would have sent Down into the lead. The Saffrons went on to lose the final after a replay to Meath, a team Down handled comfortably in their Division 2B League meeting.
“We weren’t far away,” says Conor Woods, who scored 0-4 in Loughgiel, and agrees that their exploits in 2016 do give them hope that the new management team under Mallon can put them in the position to go a few small steps further this season.
“Mickey Johnston, Chris Clarke and the lads put in a serious effort with us last year,” says Woods.
“We did just come up short. There’s nothing to fault with us lads or with them, we just came up short. Sometimes that happens.
“There were a few lads out with bad injuries that ruled them out for the year. If we’d had them maybe we could have pushed on over the line.”
League finals and the Christy Ring Cup are a long way away. Speaking to The Irish News in early January, Mallon (right) wasn’t setting goals beyond getting the basics right and forming a squad that would give everything for the shirt every time it took the field.
“We’re not coming up with any brainwaves,” he said.
“We’re not going to win All-Irelands, we mightn’t even compete in the Christy Ring. But we will try and raise the standard and bring a wee bit of passion back to it and try and get the game moving again.”
Since then, Down won the Conor McGurk Tournament at Queen’s University, beating Armagh, Derry and Ulster University twice while totting up scores of 3-32 (Armagh), 1-28 (Derry), 0-21 and 1-25 (UU). The competition was a chance to blow away the cobwebs after a solid month of head-down training, as well as get in the winning habit, and 28-year-old civil engineer Woods says the matches served their purpose perfectly.
“We got together at the start of December, everyone has worked hard from December and you look forward to games,” he says.
“Everyone is in the same boat. We didn’t have any challenge games before Christmas, we just worked hard, so I think getting games is giving everybody a bit of excitement. It shows [in the performances], everyone is wanting to play, we’ve racked up a couple of good scores.
“Whenever boys see that happening they want to be on and they want to be getting scores themselves.
“I’ve seen it myself being involved the last few years, you have hurlers in Down who don’t come out and they could well do it. It’s easy for them to stay sitting at home if you’re not winning.
“But if you get a bit of success it’s easier to get them out. That’s what we’re trying to build on. That’s what we used the pre-season games for, getting some confidence about the place.”
Confidence accumulated from pre-season matches only carries so much value, and Down’s spring schedule throws them in at the deep end, away to a team bolstered by the confidence of knowing they’ll be playing at Liam MacCarthy Cup level come the summertime.
But Meath aren’t a team that hold any sort of fear for Down. There’s no reason they should. The fact they’ll be rubbing shoulders with fancier company in the Championship doesn’t make them any less of a viable target to take two points off, even if Down will have to travel to get them.
“That’s what we’re aiming towards, the first game of the League against Meath,” says Woods.
“Between ourselves and Meath there’s never much in it.
It seems to be that whenever we play them down there we seem to find it hard and whenever they come up to the Ards, or wherever, they find it tough.”
Whatever happens at Pairc Tailteann, Woods says the overall project under the new management is simple: get the hurlers in Down who want to play for Down to give all have while they’ll doing it. If they can get that, they’ll be in the position that a few of those bounces can push them over that elusive line.
“Over the last couple of years in the squad, a few younger guys have come in and I don’t think we’ve been as tight and mentally prepared,” says Woods.
“This year the lads have got boys to think a lot more about it and Marty has talked about making hurling a priority again.
“In the past lads have been that they could maybe take it or leave it but if you make it a priority you can have some success and that’s what we’re aiming towards.''
Down's fixtures in NHL Division 2B
Sunday, Feb 12 (1pm, Pairc Tailteann): Meath
Sunday, Feb 19 (2pm, Ballycran): Roscommon
Sunday March 5 (2pm, MacHale Park): Mayo
Sunday, March 12 (2pm, Pearse Park): Wicklow
Sunday, March 26 (3pm, Ballycran): Derry