Complacency the biggest opponent as Down aim to get Tailteann Cup bid under way with a win

Tailteann Cup Group Four: Down v Limerick (Saturday, Pairc Esler, 4pm)

Down's Ceilum Doherty and Clare's Shane Griffin in action at Páirc Esler Newry. Pic Philip Walsh
Ceilum Doherty, among Down's most consistent performers this year, misses Saturday's Tailteann Cup opener against Limerick. Picture by Philip Walsh

IT probably doesn’t need said, but Down really didn’t want to be here.

So let’s get the recap out of the way. Two weeks ago, the Mournemen led Armagh by a point heading into added time, Conor Laverty’s side clinging on desperately in their bid to claim an Ulster final place and, more importantly, a much-coveted spot in the All-Ireland series.

The year previous, they had been blasted out the gates at a rain-soaked St Tiernach’s Park – this time, after adopting an ultra-defensive gameplan designed to take the sting out of Armagh’s deadly attack, it was a case of so near yet so far.

Aidan Nugent found space first to curl over, before Jason Duffy finished off a flowing move to grab the game-winning score. If only Down had managed those final few minutes better, they could be back in Clones on Sunday, walking behind the band amid a sea of red and black.

Instead, Down have to raise themselves for a Saturday afternoon Tailteann Cup group game, most likely before a modest crowd at Pairc Esler, against a side they beat with 16 points to spare three months ago.

Challenges come in all shapes and sizes in this game, and the ‘if onlys’ of a fortnight previous matter for nothing now. The ground has shifted coming into a second Tailteann Cup campaign in-a-row. The pressure, absent to a degree during Laverty’s first year following the disaster of 2022, now rests firmly on their shoulders.

Promotion to Division Two has already been secured. That, too, was a must if the Mourne County’s arc was to continue to its steady rise. The failings of an All-Ireland seeding system that allows Clare to challenge for the Sam Maguire courtesy of a win over Waterford is one thing, but Down have to take control of their own destiny from here on.

Down's Ciaran Meehan and Conor Laverty talk tactics at the start of Saturday's semi-final. Pic Philip Walsh
Conor Laverty's Down came up just short in their Ulster semi-final against Armagh a fortnight ago. Picture by Philip Walsh

Having gone so close against Armagh, the next while will see a return to the water-treading of their Division Three campaign, where it is all too easy for ambitious counties to be dragged down a level.

Laverty’s men cannot allow that to happen as they plot a course through Limerick, London and Offaly in the final group game. Down will be heavy favourites in all three, and should progress straight to the last eight.

Casting a glance around the rest of the groups, Kildare and Fermanagh look like challengers-in-chief, but the Mournemen wear the favourites’ tag before the opening bell.

Experienced heads like Niall McParland and Gerard Collins decided to call time on their county careers, while Ceilum Doherty misses out on Saturday due to injury.

Burren flyers Liam Kerr and Danny Magill, held in reserve against the Orchard, are restored to the starting of a Down side that should, once again, prove too strong for Limerick. Complacency, and a significant drop in standard and intensity from a few weeks ago, will be the Mourne County’s biggest opponent as they bid to get off to a winning start.