Mickey Donnelly: Promotion hopes derailed if Down lose to Antrim

Odhran Murdock is one of the rising stars of Down football, and added to his burgeoning reputation with an impressive display against Antrim on Saturday night. Picture by Philip Walsh
Burren midfielder Odhran Murdock spearheaded Down's comeback victory over Antrim at Pairc Esler last year. Picture by Philip Walsh

DOWN’S promotion hopes will be derailed if they come up short against Ulster rivals Antrim at Corrigan Park on Sunday, according to Mourne County coach Mickey Donnelly.

Both come into this weekend’s crunch Division Three clash off the back of consecutive wins to start their campaign but, with the stiffer tests of fellow promotion hopefuls Westmeath and Clare still to come, there will be little margin for error in west Belfast.

And Down are under no illusions about the size of the challenge they face.

A dramatic late comeback saw Conor Laverty’s side snatch a barely-deserved one-point victory in Newry last year, after two goals from Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann – a major injury doubt for Sunday’s game – left the Saffrons looking home and hosed as they led by five points with five minutes to go.

The following weekend the Mournemen slipped to a narrow defeat against Fermanagh in Ederney, before a seven-point loss in Cavan all but ended their promotion hopes.

Bitten by that experience, Donnelly knows Down cannot afford to allow Andy McEntee’s men to build up a head of steam as they did 12 months ago.

“There were warning signs from the game in Newry that resurfaced when we went to Ederney because we probably got out of jail against Antrim, then getting beat by Fermanagh really cost us promotion,” said the Tyrone native.

“Antrim’s promotion hopes maybe died that night in Newry, and ours died a week later. If we concede 2-17 at Corrigan Park on Sunday, our promotion hopes are probably over, so it’s a huge game.

“If we were to get chinned on Sunday, ultimately you have to win your last four games, and one of them is away to Westmeath who really put their hands up in the All-Ireland series last year, then you’ve Clare on the last day.

“It just creates a whole heap of pressure so Antrim, like us, will be making a massive deal of this game. We’re under no illusions that Antrim haven’t been anywhere near full strength either, and have still made a great start.

“This Antrim team has real character, Andy McEntee has brought that steel with him and a massive sense of belief.”

Ciaran Meenagh alongside Down boss Conor Laverty during last weekend's Dr McKenna Cup clash with Derry at Celtic Park. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
The addition of Ciaran Meenagh has been of huge benefit to the Down backroom team, according to Mickey Donnelly. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Both have accounted for struggling Limerick in the opening weekends of the League, with Down blitzing the Treatymen by 15 points in their last outing.

Among those to have impressed in that game, and against Wicklow, is Daniel Guinness. Injury kept the Carryduff man out of last year’s National League, but he has more than demonstrated his worth since returning to the fold and getting a clear run of games.

“Daniel’s a brilliant example to young people in general about having that strength of character and coming through obstacles,” said Donnelly.

“He’s had loads of kicks in the teeth, serious operations, but he’s a wonderful athlete and, better still, he’s a great young fella. He just wants to play for Down – if you could clone him, it would be great to do so.

“We’re delighted for him because Daniel didn’t play any National League football last year, then when you’re playing well all of a sudden there’s a red dot on your forehead, and Daniel’s going to have to cope with that too.”

There has been some change off the field too, following the addition of Ciaran Meenagh to a coaching team that already includes Laverty, Donnelly, Marty Clarke and Declan Morgan.

Yet Donnelly insists it has only enhanced the Down set-up, rather than having too many cooks spoil the broth.

“Absolutely not - we’re very fortunate we have good people involved and to, to be honest, it’s an absolute pleasure to work with them all because you’re learning all the time.

“We all get on tremendously well, and that’s a huge part of it. Ciaran and Conor would run most of the pitch stuff, and then myself and Marty are doing a lot of the one to one stuff, getting inside lads’ heads, then Decky looks after all the analysis, so we do have our own areas of expertise and we enjoy that.”