Changed times in Ards as Down start afresh for Conor McGurk Cup final clash with Antrim
“I wouldn’t like to be playing now. At least when I was playing you could look across the dressingroom and you knew the boy that was looking back at you was dedicated and he was there every week. You can’t say that about it now, it’s changed times, it’s a changed world.”
Down hurling manager Marty Mallon
TIMES have changed in the Ards. Decimated by retirements and withdrawals, the Down side that takes the field for tonight’s Conor McGurk final bears little resemblance to the team that won this competition 12 months ago.
Fed up with what he describes as a “spoilt child” attitude from some established players, manager Marty Mallon has wiped the slate clean and he’ll include as many as nine U21s for the pre-season clash against Antrim at the Dub.
This year Down will be without the Ennis brothers Michael and Sean (retired), Conor Woods and Conor Mageean (injured) and a host of others who couldn’t commit or decided that inter-county hurling wasn’t for them.
Suddenly Danny Toner, in his mid-20s, Caolan Taggart (24), Eoin Sands (23), UU student Malachy Magee, Declan McManus and goalkeeper Stephen Keith are the old hands.
Manager Mallon insists that this Down story isn’t another case of “indentured slavery” in the inter-county game. He says his squad trains “two or three” nights a week under former county football captain DJ Kane.
“I think it’s just spoilt children who can’t make up their minds,” says Mallon of the players who walked away.
“When things are asked of them, when they come under a bit of pressure to work hard and train hard, they can’t do it. Everything has been handed to them, victories were handed to them at a young age but when the pressure comes on they can’t do it.
“They can’t change their social life, they can’t commit to the winter nights... We asked over 40 players into the panel and we knew there were some of them who would let us down. If it had gone on the way it was going, there wasn’t going to be a county team this year.
“We asked players to a meeting and you could have put everyone who turned up into your kitchen.
“Some of them just will not commit to it, their social life doesn’t allow them to do what we expect. So we went down the road of picking young lads who are totally and absolutely committed and we have 33 boys training away.
“It could be a long season and we don’t know what we’re going to get from it but we have a few lads who we think are very, very good.”
Mallon has put his faith in the likes of Mark Fisher and Daithi Sands, Liatroim’s Ruairi McCrickard and Pearse McCrickard and Ryan Branigan from “across the water” in Clonduff.
“We’re going to have a go at it and we have nothing to lose,” he says.
“We’re going to rebuild because a lot of lads have arsed about over the last lot of years and we’re going to stick with boys who are going to commit to us.
“DJ Kane has been taking training for us, it has been physical and they didn’t lift a stick for six weeks until the last week and-a-half.”
Down won an Ulster minor title five years ago but only a handful of those players are still operating at senior level. Mallon says it was time to give the next wave of youngsters their chance.
“They don’t want to change their lifestyle – their social life is dictating what they do - so we moved them on and we’ve moved them on to the next generation of young fellas who want to hurl,” he said.
“We want to put a young team together and we’re going to take a punch in the nose or two if needs be physically but we’re certainly going to stick with what we have.
“Down won nothing in years with the players that were there so we may as well try and change it.”
Whatever the result this evening, Down’s main focus is on their National Hurling League Division 2B campaign which starts with a trip to Derry on January 28. After that the Ardsmen have home games against Wicklow, Armagh and Mayo and a trip to Donegal.
“It’s going to be a tough year for us but we’ll stick with it and you could be surprised where we might get,” said Mallon.
“We have three home games in the League and if we can get them on to a decent-sized pitch then who knows. They’re young and they’re small but they have worked hard, they’re in good shape and they’re committed and that’s all you can ask.
“It’s a pleasure to go to training this year, a pleasure. You don’t have to stand and wait in the carpark to see who’s coming.”
Conor McGurk Cup final: Antrim v Down (tonight, The Dub 7pm)
ANTRIM’S senior stars look set to return for tonight’s Conor McGurk Cup final against Down at the Dub.
Because of Walsh Cup commitments in Leinster, Antrim fielded a developmental side during the group stage but progressed to tonight’s decider after beating Ulster University and drawing with Tyrone last Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Ardsmen topped Group A on scoring average despite losing their opener to Queen’s University by 1-11 to 1-3 on a night for hardy bucks. The weather conditions played a huge part in that result according to Down manager Marty Mallon.
“That game should never have been played,” he said.
“It was horrendous, it was crazy but we weren’t too worried about it.
“Last year we went gung-ho into it and we walked it to be honest, but it gave us a false reading. Then we got a punch in the nose from Meath in the first game in the League and boys left the panel, they couldn’t take the heat, so things went down a bit.”
Down recovered from their loss to Queen’s by hammering Donegal 5-22 to 1-13 last weekend while Antrim rode their luck to claim a draw with Tyrone and force their way into today’s decider.
The Saffrons fielded a second-string outfit and salvaged a draw thanks to nine points from Deaglan Murphy but with no Walsh Cup fixtures this weekend, and the start of their Division 1B campaign on the horizon, joint-manager Terence McNaughton says first choice personnel will line-out at the Dub tonight.
“We’ll be giving lads a bit more game-time,” said McNaughton.
“We’ve only got a couple of games left before the League so we’ll be trying to settle on a couple of positions and I’m sure the backbone of the team will be there.”
Antrim will start as favourites against a rookie Down outfit that has lost a lot of experienced players over the winter. Manager Mallon begins 2018 with a panel packed with talented, but untested, youngsters.
“We have a lot of players defected, a lot of new faces, a lot of U21s will be playing on Saturday night,” said Mallon.
“It’s nearly a whole new panel of young lads.”