From starstruck Cúl Camp hopeful to county captain - now Pierce Laverty hopes Down can take place among the big boys

Mournemen face Laois in Tailteann Cup decider, with winner securing All-Ireland crack next year

Pierce Laverty will lead Down into battle when they take on Laois in Saturday's Tailteann Cup final at Croke Park. Picture by Brendan Monaghan
Pierce Laverty will lead Down into battle when they take on Laois in Saturday's Tailteann Cup final at Croke Park. Picture by Brendan Monaghan

BY quirk of fate, the roots of Pierce Laverty’s evolution from young hopeful to county captain are dotted around the training field as Down prepare for Saturday’s Tailteann Cup final with Laois.

Marty Clarke was the name on everybody’s lips when he returned from Australia to lead the Mournemen’s charge to the 2010 All-Ireland final, and Laverty remembers excited eyes widening when the An Riocht ace turned up at Saul’s Cúl Camp.

“I’m glad I influenced someone,” smiles Clarke.

In the years that followed, Down boss Conor Laverty was a regular visitor to St Patrick’s Park during the summer months. At the Red High, Declan Morgan – like Clarke, now part of the county management team – was Pierce Laverty’s PE teacher.

Those that got to know him could see what he had, both on and off the field. As a result, his progression followed a steady line.

“It’s probably all I have known for the last 10 years,” says the 26-year-old, “driving to Newry, driving to training two or three times a week the majority of the year.

“I look forward to coming to training and having the craic with the boys, but I also like how it’s a challenging environment… there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I love playing for Down.”

And yet, at one point a carrot was dangled before Laverty’s nose from the other side of the world when he was invited to Melbourne for a series of AFL trials.

Nothing ended up coming off that 2018 fortnight spent Down Under, and Australia’s loss has been the Mourne County’s gain – though it does still cross his mind from time to time.

“Yeah, of course. It’s only natural to think of what might have happened if I’d been offered a contract, but it was a great opportunity, something I didn’t think was an avenue through Gaelic football, and it fell in front of me.

“I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Physically, he has developed into one of the top athletes on the Down panel, while senior and past players would have looked upon Laverty as captain material in terms of his approach to the game, and how he lives his life away from football.

That’s why, as much as anybody else, he is determined to see the Mournemen taking the next step – and victory on Sunday would open the door to a first crack at the All-Ireland under Conor Laverty.

“We are where we are and that’s in the Tailteann Cup right now.

“There’s no point me saying we should be in the Sam Maguire last year or this year, we’ve had the opportunity to go and do that and we haven’t done it yet. We’re trying to maximise our performance to get over the line.

“It’s an opportunity to win silverware on the national stage and to have that under your belt, even the loss last year [to Meath] and again to Westmeath this year, to overcome them two defeats and then go and do it this time around, it’ll be a massive learning curve.”

Down's Pierce Laverty wins the full-back slot on the Tailteann Cup team
Down beat Laois convincingly in last year's Tailteann Cup semi-final. Picture by Philip Walsh

And there are clear signs of growth this year.

Promotion from Division Three, having just missed out 12 months earlier, was secured in relatively comfortable fashion. Down were a few minutes from beating Armagh in Ulster, and bounced back from that disappointment to reach another Tailteann Cup decider.

Sligo learnt plenty of lessons from a League skelping in Newry months before to push the Mournemen all the way at Croke Park, but those winter slogs in Tollymore Forest and the sand dunes near Ballykinlar paid off when extra-time rolled around.

“Coming down that final stretch in normal time, I felt that we did have the legs on them.

“I seen it physically, a lot of them were cramping and I definitely felt that the work we put in during pre-season and throughout the League stood to us.

“The week after the Ulster Championship [defeat to Armagh], it was obviously a tough one to take where you’re maybe carrying into the house or into work, moping about the place a bit. You watch it back, you can be disappointed but the message from the boys was just to get back on the horse and get at it.

“There was no point feeling sorry for ourselves - just get back to work.”