‘He’s been brilliant in training, he’s been flying...’ Down manager Laverty delighted to welcome Northern Ireland U21 international John McGovern back to Mourne squad

Caolan Mooney expected to be fit for Down Ulster Championship opener against Antrim

John McGovern (right) made his senior inter-county for Down in Sunday's win over Clare 
Picture: Philip Walsh
John McGovern (right) made his senior inter-county for Down in Sunday's win over Clare Picture: Philip Walsh

HIS debut didn’t go to plan, but Down manager Conor Laverty expects Northern Ireland soccer international John McGovern to make his mark for the Mournemen.

McGovern, who made a first appearnace in Sunday’s victory over Clare, was a key part of Laverty’s Ulster U20 Championship-winning side in 2021 but the Ballyholland Harps clubman then pursued a career in soccer that saw him nail down a starting spot with Newry City and earn a call-up to the North’s U21 squad.

There was talk of a move to Cliftonville but McGovern, who played 90 minutes for Newry against Crusaders on Saturday, is back and committed to the Down fold. His senior debut didn’t work out as he would have liked – he came on as a substitute but was black-carded and taken off – but Laverty expects the speedy forward to have much better days in the red and black jersey.

“He’s been brilliant in training, he’s been flying,” said the Down manager.

“I’ve great trust in John. I was with him in the U20s and he’s come in this past five or six weeks and been super. It was just unfortunate with the black card and then you just fear that a yellow card leads to a red in that scenario, so...

Jonny Flynn worked hard in the midfield engineroom for Down against Clare last Sunday. Pic Philip Walsh
Jonny Flynn worked hard in the midfield engineroom for Down against Clare last Sunday. Pic Philip Walsh

“That’s the benefit of having a strong panel that ‘Sav’ (Oisin Savage – the star of last season’s Down U20s) came in and was excellent.”

Savage and McGovern will hope to get more game-time on Saturday night when Down meet Westmeath in the Division Three final at Croke Park but Caolan Mooney will miss Saturday night’s decider. However, the fleet-footed RGU Downpatrick star is expected to be fit for Down’s Ulster Championship quarter-final against Antrim on April 13.

After watching his side clinch promotion as top dogs in the third tier following their 11-point win over Clare, Down manager Conor Laverty said experienced Mooney was struggling with a hamstring strain.

“It’s nothing major but he’s definitely going to be a couple of weeks,” said Laverty who is looking forward to testing his young squad at Croke Park.

“I think last year, when we played there in the Tailteann Cup final, that was some of the lads’ first time being there,” he added.

“They’ll have learned from that experience. I know there’s a lot of chat about not playing League finals and that, but the more you play in Croke Park and the more bigger games you play in, especially for a young squad like this, that experience is vital. So we’re just delighted to be getting another opportunity to get to Croke Park to compete for silverware.”

Depending on which counties make it to the provincial finals, the Division Three winners could qualify for the Sam Maguire competition this season.

“There’s a ‘probably’ in there somewhere,” said Laverty with a chuckle.

“All we can do as a squad is put our best foot forward and then be satisfied that we’ve done absolutely everything possible to play in Sam Maguire football this year.

“And that’s winning the League and that’s what we’re wanting to do. If we get there, there’s a lot of permutations of what can happen but we look forward to six days’ time playing in Croke Park and then getting ready for the Ulster Championship.”

The six-day turnaround is too quick for Laverty’s liking. In his playing days with Down the Championship wheel turned slowly but now, with the Ulster Championship beginning the weekend after the League finals, it is moving too fast.

“The six-day turnaround is very hard,” he said.

“But it’s a lot better than when we were playing and there used to be five or six weeks between the end of the League and the Championship and it was a slogging match then.

“It was sort of like a second pre-season. I would really love if we had another week in between and then slightly more of a break just to recover bodies.

“Because it’s tough going on the lads week-in-and-week-out - you don’t get much training in, you don’t get much hard work in. It’s just recovery and getting tactically aware for the opposition that you’re playing.”