Down determined to emulate Ulster rivals and join chase for Sam: Miceal Rooney

Mournemen hope to seal All-Ireland spot with Tailteann Cup final victory over Laois

Armagh's Rian O'Neill and Down's Miceal Rooney in action during the Ulster GAA Senior Football Championship Semi- Final between Armagh and Down at St Tiernach's Park, Clones. Pic : Philip Walsh
Down came close to edging out Armagh at the Ulster semi-final stage, and hope to book their spot in next year's All-Ireland series with Tailteann Cup victory over Laois on July 13. Picture by Philip Walsh

WATCHING their Ulster rivals competing at the business end of the All-Ireland Championship has made Down’s young squad determined to join them as soon as possible, according to Miceal Rooney.

Conor Laverty’s side will compete in a second Tailteann Cup final in-a-row, and are aiming to park the disappointment of last year’s defeat to Meath when they face Laois at Croke Park on Saturday, July 13.

That game provides the curtain-raiser to Armagh’s All-Ireland semi-final clash with Kerry, with Donegal taking on Galway the following day, and the Mournemen know that victory over the O’Moore County to guarantee them a crack at the big boys next year.

“When we were growing up as wee boys, we had Conor, big Jerome [Johnston] taking us, and it was drummed into us that if you weren’t winning, it’s not good enough,” said Kilcoo wing-back Rooney.

“The management team here are all pushing that with us; it’s all about winning and setting a good culture for the younger lads coming through, so that they really want to play for Down, and want to play it in the big days for Down.

“They’re watching the likes of Derry, Armagh and Donegal and if that doesn’t whet your appetite to try and get there to test yourself then what will, because that’s the only way you’re going to find out if you’re good enough.

“That’s where you want to me, and I’m sure if you ask any team that’s in this competition, their aspiration is to win it to play in Sam, and we’re no different. We understand where we are because we haven’t been able to take the chances that we’ve been given to be in Sam, so we’re taking this competition seriously to try and reach that prize at the end.”

Down came through an extra-time battle with Tony McEntee’s Sligo to earn a crack at Justin McNulty’s side, who proved too strong for Antrim in their semi-final.

Having lost out to Westmeath and Meath on their previous two visits to Croke Park, and narrowly missed out on beating Armagh in Ulster, Rooney hopes the nature of their victory over the Yeatsmen has helped Down turn a corner.

“With games that are so close like that, you only ever learn by experiencing them.

“We’ve experienced two or three real close ones and we came out the wrong side, so that’s a big statement for us as players that we were able to step up on the field and oversee that game because we knew how good Sligo were.

“It’s a real big thing for this group team to get over the line, but it will count for nothing if we don’t go out against Laois and do the same again.”

Contrasting circumstances could play a part too.

Last year, Down came into the Tailteann decider as heavy favourites after an eight goal blitz of Laois in the last four, only for Meath to step up when it mattered most.

The memory of that day will be etched in the Laois players’ heads when they cross the white line, and Rooney hopes the Mourne County’s growing familiarity with Croke Park can work to their advantage.

“It’s an individual thing - not too many of our boys have played a lot in Croke Park in big games.

“Over the last couple of years we’re very lucky that we’ve got two or three gos and we haven’t got over the line in any of them, so I think individually it helps that belief that we’re good enough to win these big games in the best stadium in Ireland.

“We’re delighted but there’s lots to work on. I’m not going to stand here and say that we were brilliant against Sligo, our desire and our grit were superb, but there’s definitely things we can work on.

“Basic skills are massive in the in the game now so we’ll knuckle down and watch Laois, see what they’re bringing to the table, and see what areas we can improve on.”