No old pals act for Clarke and McConville as Down out to spoil Garden party in Tailteann quarter-final

Former Beeb pundits to face off as Mournemen welcome Wicklow to Newry

Oisin McConville and Marty Clarke were part of the BBC's Championship punditry team, and will meet again on the line in Newry on Saturday. Picture by INPHO
Oisin McConville and Marty Clarke were part of the BBC's Championship punditry team, and will meet again on the line in Newry on Saturday. Picture by INPHO (©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty ©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty/©INPHO/Lorcan Doherty)

FOR years they shared car journeys and opinions galore as part of the BBC’s punditry team, but the close relationship between Marty Clarke and Oisin McConville will be put to one side for 70-plus minutes at Pairc Esler on Saturday.

McConville’s Wicklow side travel to Newry aiming to upset the odds in their Tailteann Cup quarter-final clash with Down, which acts as the curtain-raiser to Derry’s critical All-Ireland date with Westmeath.

Having fallen to Meath at the final hurdle last year, the Mournemen are among the favourites to go all the way in the tier two competition – but Down coach Clarke knows better than most that the Garden County, and the Armagh man guiding their fortunes, will be determined to upset the applecart.

“I worked with Oisin for seven or eight years, we always would’ve went to games together – I would’ve met him in Crossmaglen or he’d have picked me up on the way, so I got to know him very well.

“I always took so much away from him because he’s such a winner, and the way he sees the game. Working with him in those big Ulster Championship games, you get a great insight into the psychology and, looking back, we definitely had a good relationship that way.

“I have ultimate respect for Oisin and what he’s done in his sporting career and his life. He’s somebody I would admire greatly and he’s somebody who has taken that into the Wicklow set-up.”

With former Down player Mark Doran part of his backroom team, McConville will be well aware of what Wicklow are coming up against on Saturday.

The counties also met on the opening weekend of the National League, Conor Laverty’s side coming away with a five-point victory before going on to seal promotion from Division Three.

However, Wicklow were without goalkeeper Mark Jackson for that clash in Aughrim – the Baltinglass ace having been in America attempting to secure an NFL contract – and his return has been a significant boost.

Indeed, McConville’s men pulled off one of the surprises of the Championship when they beat Westmeath, Division Three final victors over Down six days earlier, in the Leinster Championship, before just losing out to Kildare in the provincial quarter-final.

However, they looked set to exit the Tailteann Cup when, after defeats to Fermanagh and Laois, Wicklow found themselves a point behind against neighbours Carlow with five minutes remaining of the final group game – only to bounce back and claim third spot.

That was followed up with preliminary quarter-final victory over Leitrim last weekend, handing the Garden a shot at downing Down.

“I would know the mindset Oisin has brought to Wicklow and that winning mentality is evident.

“Westmeath, who have proven to be a very good side, deservedly in the Sam Maguire, Wicklow went there and beat them in Leinster. They were very unlucky then not to beat Kildare, so he has done very well.

“We found out in Aughrim that they’re a difficult team to play against, they have a lot of qualities and especially with Mark Jackson having come back into the set-up since.

“I spoke to Oisin after that and he had mentioned that loss was significant; you can tell from the homework we’ve done that he has added a lot.

“Knowing Oisin, I’ve no doubt he’s coming to Pairc Esler expecting to win. But we’re in a good place ourselves in terms of our squad and who we have to choose from, so it’s a challenge we’ll embrace.”

Down's Ryan McEvoy holds off Wicklows Joe Prendergast
Down met Wicklow in the first round of the National League this year in Aughrim

And it is a challenge Down have slowly but surely been building towards after the disappointment of their Ulster Championship exit to Armagh.

The Mournemen led that semi-final heading into the dying seconds of normal time, only for the Orchardmen to bag two brilliant scores that sent them into a decider against Donegal.

Having spent the last two years in Division Three, it showed that Down are equipped to compete, with exposure to that level of opposition now crucial to their development moving forward.

Going from that near miss into the Tailteann Cup can be a tough task, even with a place in next year’s All-Ireland series up for grabs. But Clarke has been impressed with the maturity the panel showed en route to straightforward victories over Limerick and London, allowing Laverty to try out a few new faces in the final dead rubber win over Offaly.

“Obviously we want to be playing Sam Maguire football, but at the same time we’re realistic,” said the 2010 Allstar.

“There’s an opportunity in every competition you play to get playing in the Sam Maguire, and across the couple of years we weren’t able to do it via the League, the Ulster Championship or the Tailteann Cup.

“The pathway is there if you’re good enough, we haven’t been able to get to that stage yet, and we’re fully focused on trying to do it this time around in the Tailteann Cup.

“In the League campaign, right until probably the 60th minute against Clare, in your seventh game, we weren’t guaranteed promotion, so we had to earn and scrap our way out of that division.

“Of course it’s difficult jumping from one competition where you know how long it is since Down won an Ulster Championship, and we thought we were going to be able to get over the line against Armagh.

“Having come so close, then watching the Ulster final, it’s not easy. But we’re strong enough in the group now that by the time Limerick came to Newry for the first game, we were mature enough to knuckle down and work hard and get the results we needed.

“The game against Offaly was the first time in the two years we’ve been involved that there wasn’t a massive amount at stake, but this week there has definitely been a bit of a change in intensity.”