‘I’d fancy Down to take Westmeath...’ Mournemen are worth a punt in Division Three decider

Top scorers (Down) take on best defence (Westmeath) in final under Croke Park lights

Down's Danny Magill celebrates his second half goal against Clare. Pic Philip Walsh
The men in red and black are back... Down's Danny Magill celebrates his second half goal against Clare. Pic Philip Walsh

Allianz National Football League Division Three final: Down v Westmeath (Saturday, Croke Park, 7.15pm, live on TG4)

IN Newry last weekend, a Clare native who’d come up against both Division Three finalists had no doubt which was the better side.

“I’d fancy them (Down) to take Westmeath,” he said.

“Worth a punt then?” asked an onlooker.

“Yeah,” he replied before heading for the Banner bus and we’ll find out whether he was right or not under Croke Park’s lights.

A note of caution for anyone taking that punt: There was nothing between Down and Westmeath when they met in Mullingar a fortnight ago. The Mournemen had the chance to wrap up promotion that day but the pressure seemed to get to them and it took 18 minutes to get a score on the board.

Daniel Guinness – playing brilliantly in an attacking half-back role – hammered home a second half goal but Dessie Dolan’s men responded impressively and it took a late score from Ryan McEvoy to rescue a point for the Mournemen. Down missed chances to win the game but when canny manager Conor Laverty got the squad together the following night instead of reading the riot act he changed tempo and encouraged the players to relax, “have a bit of craic” and play some basketball instead of training.

The change of pace worked because Down produced an excellent last half-hour to pull away from Clare last Sunday and seal promotion in top spot. Meanwhile, Westmeath lost to Sligo but still finished runners-up.

The 2022 Tailteann Cup winners begin their Leinster SFC campaign against Wicklow just eight days after this final but are expected to have talisman John Heslin available after the veteran returned to action against Sligo.

Down have a little more respite – they face Antrim on April 13 – but the claustrophobic fixture schedule is a factor. However, Down defender Pierce Laverty says the men in red and black want to impress and capture some early-season silverware.

Down's Ceilum Doherty and Clare's Shane Griffin in action at Páirc Esler Newry. Pic Philip Walsh
Down corner-back Ceilum Doherty was the joint top-scorer last weekend against Clare. Pic Philip Walsh

“It’s another day out at Croke Park and that’s a bonus,” said Laverty.

“We got the two games there last year and hopefully we have learned a lot from them. I think the surface suits us and we’ll go out and try and win every game we can.

“Building from last year and some of the tough results we took, we learned a lot from them and it’s quite a young panel. I can see us starting to learn from some of our mistakes and starting to build a bit of momentum, so I think we are in a good place.”

The smooth, expansive Croke Park surface should suit Down’s high-tempo running game. Last weekend corner-back Ceilum Doherty (1-2) and full-forward Pat Havern (0-5) were joint top-scorers which illustrates how they defend and attack with all hands on deck in a system that utilises the pace in the squad. Possession is key and it comes from short kickouts, winning opposition restarts with a full-on press that can include goalkeeper John O’Hare and forcing turnovers in their own half. Division Three opponents couldn’t live with Down’s energy and the Mournemen blasted 14 goals and 103 points over seven games.

The architect of the system is of course Conor Laverty and Pierce Laverty (no relation) says his manager’s passion for the game and hunger for success has rubbed off on the players.

“I suppose he has probably changed the culture in Down football in the last couple of years,” says the Down skipper.

“He is really driven and I think he has really set the standard for us going forward and he has set that standard really high. He’s absolutely obsessed with it and that’s starting to show through in all of us.

“And Ciaran (Meenagh) has been brilliant. He’s really meticulous and his knowledge of the game is through the roof and he’s brought some of that experience in from Ulster titles with Derry.

“Even with Derry the last four or five years, they went on a similar road that we are trying to go on. They came from the lower divisions and they are now sitting as Ulster champions back to back. If he can do that with Derry, then why not us?”

Down have been averaging close to 21 points this year while Westmeath are scoring at just under 15 but the midlanders had the best defence in Division Three.

They will be hard to break down so crucial for the Ulster outfit is taking their chances early on so they can force Westmeath to push out to stay in the game, leaving space in their defence for the Mourne county’s pacey forwards and half-backs to exploit.

A solid start will set Down on the road to victory and they get the nod to deservedly go up as champions.