Danny Hughes: Imminent appointment can restore faith among Down devotees

Supporters in the stand at the Down SFC final between Kilcoo and Burren on Sunday. Despite the rumour that a new county manager would be introduced to the crowd at the final proving wide off the mark, the subsequent news of the involvement of former Donegal boss Jim McGuinness in the Mourne set-up will cause excitement among the Down faithful Picture: Philip Walsh

I had heard that the new Down manager would be unveiled to the crowd in Pairc Esler last weekend during the club championship final between Kilcoo and Burren.

I pictured something akin to announcing Julius Caesar in the Colosseum.

While many of us took it as a joke, there were some expectant faces reluctant to grab a cup of tea or use the toilets at half-time.

Kilcoo were the better team and the margin, while two points in the end, probably didn’t reflect the greater dominance the Magpies enjoyed.

Kilcoo have now won nine of the last 10 club championships in Down and secured an Ulster title along the way.

They have reached an All-Ireland club final and narrowly lost to Corofin in extra-time.

It is fair to say that the All-Ireland club title is their Holy Grail.

Had Covid not interrupted a bit of momentum in 2020, they could have arguably made another All-Ireland final.

Success is a drug and it’s fair to say that Kilcoo are hooked on it.

The split season will help counties like Down who have, in the last decade, had one club dominate their county championship.

You would assume that the conditions no longer exist to create a potential conflict between club and county over player accessibility.

This lack of an overlap now between club and county will ensure that each team will have unadulterated access to their players energies and focus.

It is almost as if the stars are aligning nicely given that Kilcoo and Down have clashed in years gone by and if the rumours are true, Down’s new management team will be extremely well received by the county champions.

Conor Laverty’s success with the U20 Down team makes him a natural candidate and the dynamic with Martin Clarke has delivered an U20 Ulster title in their first season.

Conor continues to make Kilcoo’s starting 15, but not only that, in their recent semi-final against Ballyholland, was instrumental in getting them over the line, so one can only assume the appetite to play remains there.

Kilcoo arguably have a chance of competing for another Ulster title and another All-Ireland final is possible. So while that remains an achievable prize, as a player you would be reluctant to hang up the boots.

Martin is a very intelligent person and knows his football – obviously, he was on a different level when we played together and for Martin himself it always seemed natural that he would go into management and coaching.

Obviously, there is a deadline in writing my column, so this is a bit of an evolving story.

Jim McGuinness would have been a box-office appointment, so the giddiness and excitement of all Down fans was understandable.

Having the former Donegal boss on board would have helped allow Laverty to continue playing for the current county champions without much fanfare or threat of unconscious bias being cast up against him.

I am not sure if a county manager has ever continued to play for his club and while it has probably happened in the past, although I think Larry Tompkins's may still have be playing club football when he took over at Cork.

When it comes to being successful at county level, most players put club rivalries aside.

Down are starting next season in Division Two of the National League, which is an important foundation on which to build something sustainable.

The key word here is ‘sustainable’.

The senior manager is the spotlight and the appointment is symbolically important in order to start to get the best out of our player fraternity.

As a county, there is also now an opportunity to undertake some root and branch structural change.

With construction of the Ballykinlar Centre of Excellence receiving planning approval, attention should turn towards getting more coaching and expertise into schools and clubs.

I volunteer at a school in Down once a week, in an attempt to improve their skill set, but most of all to create an insatiable appetite for Gaelic football.

I must say, that in this case, the girls playing are actually much better than many of the boys and the skill set they have acquired is hugely impressive considering no emphasis has historically been directed toward Gaelic Games in the school.

There are too many cases like this in our county.

Down need to look at where the bar is now and start to raise it.

Both Donegal and Tyrone have appeared to have their houses in order in the last decade and naturally, McGuinness helped focus minds during his tenure with Donegal with regard to standards.

Put it this way, he more than certainly created the right conditions on which to lay the foundations for Donegal’s current conveyor belt of talent.

Tyrone have been churning out high quality players for years now and since Down last won their All-Ireland, Tyrone have added four titles in the interim.

As a county, Down still have huge work to do and while the big news will be the management appointment, a huge amount of work needs done in the background.

To ensure we have a conveyor belt of talent properly prepared mentally and physically for high-level performance, Down must ensure they prioritise a player pathway and they must ensure that the Down management oversee and influence this process.

If this does not happen, no matter who the manager is, sustainable success will continue to allude my county.

I don’t believe Down are as bad as their last Championship outing against Donegal in the summer suggested.

While it was a bit of a humiliation, with the proper determination, focus and playing vision we can build on those natural instincts Down players are ingrained with and born into and close that gap to those currently sitting on their perch in Ulster.

The practicalities of the modern game are not lost on me by the way.

Jürgen Klopp best put it when talking of Liverpool’s history and expectation when he arrived at the club.

Privately to the players, Klopp wanted them to carve out their own identity and legacy.

His message was that history could play its part in helping them, but it should not define them or weigh them down.

To the fans, he wanted them to become ‘believers’.

The very nature of ‘faith’, in a sporting or religious sense is such where it is easy to have it when things are going well, however, easily lost when things are not.

In a way, as a county, Down fans and to a certain degree some players, have lost faith and no longer believe.

This appointment may certainly help reconnect with those doubters who have lost their faith in Down.

The manager will have to, not only build a squad of believers, but also try to impose their vision on a county that badly needs one.

Not an easy task.

Down find themselves in a sort of pre-Klopp Liverpool era.

The consolation for us Down fans, is that the right manager can work miracles.

Therefore, we patiently wait.



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