‘This game is far more important for Down’: Mark Doran on why Mournemen cannot slip up against his former Clare comrades

Kilkeel man spent year alongside Colm Collins with Banner - but believes Conor Laverty’s men will finally get promotion party under way

Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath
Picture: Louis McNally
Last weekend's draw with Westmeath means Down must avoid defeat to Clare in Sunday's final League outing. Picture by Louis McNally

LAST weekend couldn’t have gone much better for Mark Doran.

Saturday saw Wicklow edge past Limerick to keep their Division Three survival hopes alive going into the last round of action, while the Kilkeel man was leaping about the living room on Sunday as his beloved Manchester United toppled rivals Liverpool in an epic FA Cup quarter-final.

Had Down seal promotion to Division Two around the same time, it would truly have been a St Patrick’s weekend to savour.

As it is, though, the Mournemen face a make-or-break clash with Clare on Sunday – the same Clare with whom Doran was involved during Colm Collin’s final year at the helm, and a Banner side determined to spoil the party in Newry under new boss Mark Fitzgerald.

It will be a strange day for Doran as the League wraps up.

Having been asked onboard by Oisin McConville, his sole focus from 2pm on Sunday will be Wicklow’s bid to beat the drop – with victory over Antrim a must if they are to stand any hope.

Yet the first result he will look for once the dust settles at Corrigan Park is that of his native county. Avoid defeat, and pacesetters Down go up unbeaten. Lose, though, and Conor Laverty’s side will face another purgatorial campaign toiling in the third tier.

It is a situation Doran knows all too well.

Rewind to 2019 when he was part of Paddy Tally’s backroom team as Down went into the final day knowing victory over Louth would guarantee an immediate return to Division Two.

A day of drama unfolded, however, as Louth travelled back across the border with a deserved victory, while wins for Laois and Westmeath nudged the Mournemen out of the picture at the last.

History has repeated itself somewhat under Laverty.

Last year Down missed out on promotion despite finishing on the same points as Fermanagh and Cavan, a narrow defeat in Ederney proving particularly costly when all was said and done.

Experienced Down native Mark Doran will be in the Wicklow management team next season
Down man Mark Doran will be with Wicklow in Corrigan Park on Sunday, but his native county won't be too far from his thoughts once that game is done and dusted

And since last weekend’s draw in Mullingar put celebrations on ice, the pressure has been amped up.

Clare had spent the previous seven seasons in Division Two, and would dearly love to get back there at the first opportunity. But Sunday, Doran insists, holds more significance to this ambitious Down group.

“It’s far more important to Down because another year stuck in Division Three, development-wise, wouldn’t be good. The longer you’re down there, you do get into bad habits.

“Same when we were in with Paddy, after missing out the first year, it was vitally important we got out of Division Three at the second time of asking.

“For the likes of Daniel Guinness, Ryan Johnston, Liam Kerr, Ceilum Doherty, Pat Havern, they need to be playing at a higher standard if Down are going to get to where they want to go.

“Clare have lost so many players, 16 of squad from last year. Emmet McMahon’s injured, Cillian Brennan hasn’t kicked a ball in the League... to be fair to them, with the amount of the boys who are missing, they probably thought they would just go in and consolidate, so this is maybe bonus territory.

“I have a lot of good friends in Clare but I do hope Down get up. They have been the stand-out team in Division Three this season by a mile.”

Yet last year Doran also got a unique insight into the mentality of the Clare footballer, so much of which comes from Collins.

The Cratloe man called time at the end of the Championship after a decade at the helm and, even though some key personnel are no longer available, his imprint on the county remains.

“Clare will always go to the wall – that’s one big thing I learned,” said Doran who, as Slaughtneil boss, will also have an eye on the Emmet’s contingent in action during Derry’s Division One date with Roscommon Sunday.

“That’s part of Colm’s legacy, and now still with Mark Fitzgerald, they never throw the towel in. Colm created that culture.

“Last year was a difficult one because I knew before we played Monaghan in the second round of All-Ireland group stage games that he would be going. The Donegal game hurt him - we were really poor that day - then on the Wednesday after I arrived just as he was getting out of the van and he told me.

“There had been rumours but it wasn’t made public, then before we went out to play Derry in the last game, it was like nothing I had ever seen. Colm had been very quiet all week, then standing in that changing room in Longford, you had 35 boys all with tears in their eyes.

“That just told you what the Clare boys thought of Colm. You knew it was hard for him but, even though we lost that day, the players gave Colm a performance.

“If Colm had still been there this year, there’s no doubt a lot of those older players would’ve hung on – the likes of Kieran Malone, Eoin Cleary, even Podge [Collins] maybe.

“But look, what Colm did for Clare football, and what he’s still doing behind the scenes at the minute, the man just lives and breathes Clare. And I’ve no doubt he’ll be one of the first through the gates in Newry on Sunday.”

Former Down star Marty Clarke returned to club action with An Riocht on Friday night, six years after his last appearance
Mark Doran does not expect former team-mate Marty Clarke to make his first Down appearance in 13 years during the make-or-break clash with Clare on Sunday

Another man Doran knows well is Marty Clarke.

Having played alongside elder sibling John when Down claimed the 1999 All-Ireland crown, Doran was on the panel with both brothers when the Mournemen reached the 2010 All-Ireland final – Marty Clarke landing an Allstar for his performances that year.

He hasn’t appeared in red and black since 2011, and the 36-year-old is currently part of Laverty’s coaching team. However, having spent the last number of months training alongside the Down goalkeepers and coach John Devine, they had hoped to use Clarke at some point before the end of the League.

With so much riding on Sunday’s game, though, Doran expects Laverty will stick with John O’Hare.

“John has done very well.

“Conor was very shrewd bringing Ciaran Meenagh in, you can see his impact because Down did struggle last year when teams played a low block defence against them – they found it hard to break that down, whereas their attacking game has definitely evolved with bringing John out.

“If they had got the two points against Westmeath last weekend, and this was a dead rubber, I think you’d see Marty playing on Sunday. But it’s a different little of fish standing at training, pinging kick-outs to when you’re in Newry in the white heat of battle, a lot at stake, and you have a full press against you.

“You can see the thinking behind it, coming out to take frees, he’s very good on the ball, his organisational skills are really good... you never know, but I don’t think you’ll see him this Sunday.”