Down ready for a 'serious rattle' against Antrim says manager Marty Mallon
Christy Ring Cup semi-final: Antrim v Down (today, Cushendall, 5pm)
FOR Down hurling manager Marty Mallon, this year’s Ulster Championship and Christy Ring campaigns have been something of a journey of self-discovery.
The Ards men bowed out of the provincial championship at the semi-final stage to Armagh in April’s semi-final. Today, they take on Antrim in the last-four of the Christy Ring Cup and Mallon feels he has a far better idea of where Down hurling is at than he did a couple of months ago.
“A Christy Ring Cup semi-final is exactly where we wanted to be a start of the campaign,” said Mallon, who took on the Down job at the end of last year along with Paul Coulter and Gary Savage.
“Not getting promotion in the National League was probably the biggest disappointment, but we’ve found out an awful lot about ourselves along the way.
“When I came into the role, I thought everybody wanted to be playing hurling for Down, but that turned out not to be the case. But now, we have a group of lads there who want to be playing and are giving everything and we’re happy with that.”
Down have certainly struggled for numbers at times this year, with reports suggesting they had only 18 players available for that Ulster semi-final defeat to Armagh. Against Roscommon in their Christy Ring opener, they had 19 in the squad, while for their round two defeat to Antrim at the back end of last month, they were minus their best man-marker in John McManus, prolific free-taker Danny Toner and the in-form Paul Sheehan.
But Mallon believes they have turned the corner in terms of bringing together a viable panel of hurlers.
“We’ve got a squad of 24 for the Antrim game,” he added.
“Caolan Daly has left the panel but, apart from that, we have everyone committed and the application has been brilliant. Christopher Egan is flying, Caolan Taggart has been playing very well and John McManus has been excellent since he’s come back in.”
Down were given little chance when they travelled to Birmingham to take on London in last week’s quarter-final, but a masterclass from Eoghan Sands, who will miss today’s game through suspension, helped to see them through.
Mallon denies he was surprised by the performance in England’s second city: “I knew on the flight over, I was thinking to myself, ‘these are the boys we want hurling for Down’,” he said.
“When we came in, everyone was focused on themselves and how their game was developing, but now we have everyone focused on the team and working collectively. A lot of people were backing against us in the London game, they were giving us no chance, but we put on a performance.”
Turning to today’s game, Mallon admits Eoghan Sands’ dismissal against the Exiles was a big blow.
“We’re going to miss him badly against Antrim, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
“He’s been playing out of his skin for us, especially against London. But our preparation for this game has been first class and, aside from Eoghan, we’ve a complete squad to pick from.”
The Portaferry man is keenly aware of the size of the size of the task facing his side today, however. When the two teams met in Cushendall three weeks ago, the Saffrons were never stretched by their visitors and cantered to a 3-15 to 0-12 victory. To overturn that 12-point margin in the space of less than a month presents a mammoth challenge for the Ards men.
“The London win gave us a massive lift, but we know that Antrim are way, way ahead of us,” said Mallon.
“They’re playing their hurling two divisions above us and they have good hurlers coming out of their ears. But we’re going to keep beating the drum. It would be nice to get a home game against Antrim again at some point. I can’t remember the last time we played them at home.
“In a way, Saturday is a win-win encounter for us. Croke Park are counting on a big final between Antrim and Carlow, but ourselves and Wicklow have a bit left in the tank yet.
“We’re going to give it a serious rattle.”