GAA

Clare’s spring rebound a serious threat to Down’s progress

Mark Fitzgerald’s Bannermen are not to be taken lightly, regardless of how different they look from 12 months ago. But Down just have to win. And win they will

Down's Liam Kerr and Limerick's Colm McSweeney in action during the Allianz GAA Football Division 3 Round 2 fixture between Down and limerick at Páirc Esler in Newry on 02-03-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Kerr crop Down's Liam Kerr and Limerick's Colm McSweeney in action during the Allianz GAA Football Division 3 Round 2 fixture between Down and limerick at Páirc Esler in Newry on 02-03-2024. Pic Philip Walsh
Allianz Football League Division Three: Down v Clare (Sunday, 2pm, Pairc Esler)

IF you’ll forgive it, we’ll forget Down for a moment.

Clare would have had every right to be nowhere near promotion this spring. Losing a figurehead like Colm Collins would have been sore enough but his replacement Mark Fitzgerald has had to work without a dozen of last year’s squad, many of whom were inextricably linked to their years punching up in Division Two.

Eoin Cleary, Podge Collins, Jamie Malone, Cathal O’Connor, Keelan Sexton, Ciarán Russell, the list goes on.

We’ve seen so many times in the past how relegations can snowball, one into the other. Cavan were the most recent example, going from Division One to Four in successive seasons. Derry had been there, Westmeath in the not-too-distant past. It can happen so easily.

Externally, there’s no doubt that there was that fear for Clare this year.

In that sense, Mark Fitzgerald has done a really sound job of keeping them between the hedges.

Not only that, but they probably should be coming to Newry top of the table with six wins from six.

They couldn’t pass all the buck on their sole defeat to Westmeath. They’d led by six points at half-time in Mullingar, but it was the stoppage-time decision to wrongly disallow Cormac Murray’s goal for a square ball that ultimately prevented them from winning.

With Dessie Dolan’s side expected to win in Sligo, it leaves Clare needing to win against Down to go up.

Sunday marks five years to the day when under Paddy Tally, Down were widely expected to cruise past Louth on the final day and go up. They ended up completely outplayed and fortunate that they only lost by a point.

These are still early days for Conor Laverty but they need to go up this weekend if they’re to stay on the trajectory they’re on.

There are distinct similarities between the start of the Laverty reign and the way that Rory Gallagher’s time began in Derry.

Year one, Derry lost a game they should have won (against Down, ironically) and missed out on promotion from Division Three. They put up a strong championship showing but in a knockout Covid year, lost narrowly to Armagh.

Year one for Down, lost games they could have won against Fermanagh and Cavan, decent championship showing, but without a proper statement win given the state Donegal were in.

Year two, Derry avoided the league blips to go up and went even closer still to a big championship scalp, taken down only by Patrick McBrearty’s decisive swing of the left boot that left them crestfallen in Ballybofey.

Down’s second year hasn’t quite been as smooth but then they aren’t operating out of a shortened four-game campaign that was largely beneath them as Derry’s was that year.

To stay on that line, Down have to go up this weekend.

They’re on the kinder side of the Ulster SFC draw again, another potential semi-final with Armagh the destination in their eyeline, and they’d love a crack at Sam Maguire football.

No point in anyone trying to shield it, this is what they’ve been aiming for.

“It’s massive to get out of it,” said Danny Magill about promotion from the third tier earlier this month.

“It’s massive. It’s everything for us,” echoed Pierce Laverty after last weekend’s ultimately disappointing draw in Mullingar.

It feels like a test too of the Down public’s enthusiasm for the project. Eighteen months ago they packed the stand for a McKenna Cup semi-final. Naturally the furore settled but on days like this that have altogether more significance, a busy and noisy Páirc Esler would do no harm.

The nerves got to them in Cusack Park but that whole experience ought to stand to them.

Clare are not to be taken lightly, regardless of how different they look from 12 months ago.

But Down just have to win. And win they will.