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'Any time our backs have been against the wall, we’ve come out the right side'

Caolan Taggart (middle) hopes Down can secure their Joe McDonagh Cup status by beating Kildare at Hawkfield on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh
Caolan Taggart (middle) hopes Down can secure their Joe McDonagh Cup status by beating Kildare at Hawkfield on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh Caolan Taggart (middle) hopes Down can secure their Joe McDonagh Cup status by beating Kildare at Hawkfield on Saturday. Picture by Philip Walsh

CRUMBS of comfort have been hard to come by in a difficult year so far - but victory over Kildare on Saturday would be the perfect way to save Down’s season, according to vice-captain Caolan Taggart.

Having made an unexpected push for Division One last year, topping the 2A table before losing out to Westmeath in the League decider, the Ardsmen have yet to register a competitive win in 2023.

A last-gasp Pearse Og McCrickard free was enough to earn a dramatic draw in their relegation shoot-out with Derry, that point – and a better score difference – ultimately seeing Down stay up.

But heavy defeats to Kerry, Laois, Offaly and Carlow have left Ronan Sheehan’s side in need of victory to secure their Joe McDonagh Cup status when they face fellow strugglers Kildare in Hawkfield.

However, the Ardsmen can take comfort from the fact they are entering relatively familiar terrain. As well as saving their skins once already this year, Down also came on strong when it mattered against Meath 12 months ago to ensure they stayed in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

And Taggart hopes that muscle memory can stand to them again on Saturday.

“When you get to this level, momentum plays a big part in it,” said the 27-year-old.

“If you look at our League campaign, some of the games were a couple of points here or there… we just seemed to struggle with that last hurdle.

“This game, it’s the be all and end all now. Any time in the past where our backs have been against the wall, we’ve come out the right side – that’s what we’re aiming for again this weekend.

“You don’t want to be dropping down a level. Christy Ring, for us, you could say it was a struggle. I’m not putting other teams down, but you sort of get dragged down to the level of the Christy Ring.

“You want to be playing against the best teams - it might not be in my time but at some stage you want to get into the top division, that’s where everyone aims to be. Staying in the Joe McDonagh is the first step towards that.”

Down’s cause wasn’t helped by the loss of some key men at different parts of the year, with stalwart Conor Woods bringing the curtain down on his county career while the likes of the Sands brothers, Daithi and Eoghan, were unavailable for a time.

And where a strong defence was the cornerstone of last year’s progression, goals have been shipped at an alarming rate – 15 conceded in four McDonagh Cup games so far, with only scored at the other end.

Portaferry man Taggart feels a lack of continuity, caused by injury and absence, has taken a toll.

“There’s been a lot of personnel changes, a lot of players coming in and out. We’ve had to switch it about.

“If you look at all our games in League and Championship, I’d say you couldn’t put two games together where we put the same defence out.

“But then, because last year we got some good results and beat teams people maybe didn’t think we should be beating, they’re wanting to put a marker down against us.”

Taggart, though, isn’t getting bogged down in what has gone before during recent weeks.

Saturday represents a clean slate, he insists, and an opportunity to end a tough year on a high.

“I don’t really let things get to me, I’ve never really been one to celebrate too much after wins or get that down after defeats. I’m confident going into every game, I want to win every game.

“Anyone who tells you they don’t feel pressure, they’re lying. There’s always going to be pressure, but at the end of the day it’s 70 minutes to decide whether you’re staying in the Joe McDonagh or playing in the Christy Ring next year.

“Against Derry there was the same sort of pressure but we didn’t deal with it correctly. We have four U20s up this year but, bar them, everybody’s been in this position before. We’ll always back ourselves.”