Better Call Saul: Rivals clash as Down SFC kicks off

Down captain Pierce Laverty will be aiming to secure an opening day victory for Saul over neighbours Downpatrick.
Down captain Pierce Laverty will be aiming to secure an opening day victory for Saul over neighbours Downpatrick. Down captain Pierce Laverty will be aiming to secure an opening day victory for Saul over neighbours Downpatrick.

Saul and Downpatrick kickstart the Down Senior Football Championship tomorrow night. Downpatrick the big dogs, Saul the clingers on. A derby match? “Well, geographically”, according to Saul manager Conor O’Toole.

In years to come, with tussles like tomorrow night, perhaps that is what it will snowball into. Not right now, however. 

Yet this tie is a symbol of the shifting tides. Saul, skippered by intercounty captain Pierce Laverty, are a team on the up. Downpatrick, County Down is verging on onomatopoeia, reminiscent of former glories.

Read More: Saul's hat-trick of majors ensures victory in Down IFC final

So, is it a derby?

“It probably does feel that way for players and people affiliated with the club over the years. Traditionally they’ve been Division 1 and we’ve been lower down the ranks.

“Obviously Downpatrick were relegated last year, but they will be confident”.

The nature of the SFC format adds a nice bit of spice to tomorrow’s encounter at Darragh Cross. Enemies, perhaps not yet, but certainly neighbours, rivals. Victory secures senior status for another year, simultaneously booting the opposition a step closer to the gaping jaws of Intermediate.

That brings tomorrow night into even sharper focus. Not last chance saloon, but an escape hatch before the real desperation kicks in.

“We are well aware we only have to win one game, and the first game up would help us build momentum. It’s an opportunity, even if we’ve accepted we’re not going to win the championship.

“In recent years, Saul have affirmed senior status. Downpatrick are Division 2, the same as ourselves, and we have to win a match at some point, so why not tomorrow?”.

O’Toole’s opposite number Paul Evans will be under the spotlight, having previously managed Saul. Given the distance between the clubs, one could hardly describe it as a homecoming. The “welcome homes” would probably be few and far between in any case.

Is Evans a factor that concerns O’Toole, with added knowledge, or insight in some quarter that could potentially unravel Saul’s gameplan?

“In fairness, it’s been a while since Paul has been involved, and given the distance, there’s little either team doesn’t know about each other.

“There’s family connections between the clubs, there’s friendships, there’s people living in Downpatrick playing for us and people living in Saul playing for them.

“There’s not going to be any secrets hidden up anyone’s sleeve.”

Neutral eyes will naturally sway towards the county figures of Laverty and Ruairi O’Hare of Saul, while for Downpatrick, Gerard Collins and Anthony Doherty will require extra attention. O’Toole is wary of overly supervising the intercounty stars of 2023 however.

“Downpatrick have strength in depth, they’re a proud club and they’re always well represented on county teams, even looking back to ‘91.

“Caolan Mooney is back fit and he needs no introduction, and Conor McGrady is back too. We know we’re not blessed to the same extent, but Pierce and Ruairi O’Hare can equally cause trouble.”

O’Toole insists preparation has been good. A mixed league campaign saw them finish 4th in Division 2, one place below tomorrow’s opponents. Most concerning however, was a five match losing streak to finish out the campaign.

“It’s not ideal prep, we’ve made that clear. We had been pushing very hard for promotion up until the July break.

“We were sitting third, then had matches Friday and Monday and we lost both by a point. We were winning both heading into injury time.

“That left it that we couldn’t get promoted or relegated, and it ended up a few nothing games which didn’t help, but we’ve picked up training and have players returning from holiday, and we feel we’re ready to go.”

In training, you never really know. Tomorrow night, the picture will be crystal clear.