Down have the momentum but Mournemen could come unstuck in face of Kildare firepower
Allianz Football League Division Two: Down v Kildare (tonight, 7pm, Pairc Esler, live on eirSport 1)
WHAT a difference three weeks can make. Back on February 25, the world was weighing heavily on the shoulders of the Down footballers as they prepared for a make-or-break clash with Meath at Pairc Esler.
Without a win in League or Championship since April 2015 and having been scalped by Fermanagh and Clare already, it was with a sense of foreboding that patrons made their way through the gates.
Lose, and not only did a second consecutive relegation look highly likely but the focus on manager Eamonn Burns would have intensified even further.
Despite a nervy finish, Down held out for a deserved two-point win. There were no wild celebrations on the pitch or in the stand, just a huge sense of relief.
A pressure valve had been opened – all of a sudden players and management could talk about something other than striving to end their winless streak.
Eight days later they backed that up by tearing into Derry at Celtic Park, taking their tally to four points. Burns refused to entertain post-match talk of an unlikely promotion push with survival still far from secure - although victory tonight would be a significant step towards that goal.
To be even talking in such terms is a world away from the mood music this time three weeks ago. As was the case then, they welcome an unpredictable Leinster side to Newry on a Saturday night.
Yet instead of doom and gloom, there has been a quiet renewal of optimism. Although Kildare currently occupy top spot in Division Two after picking up three wins from four, it is Down who surprisingly hold favour with the bookies.
And, considering their one defeat came against an Oak Leaf team so decisively second best against Down, it is hard to know what to expect from Cian O’Neill’s Lilywhites.
They looked hugely impressive against Meath on the opening day of the League, romping to a 10-point win in Navan, before seeing off Cork.
Yet after being derailed by Derry, Kildare had victory handed to them by a generous Fermanagh on March 5, three of their four goals gifted by an Erne side guilty of uncharacteristic lapses in concentration.
The cause is not helped by the loss of top scorer Neil Flynn, who is set to miss the rest of the League after having his appendix removed, while corner-forward Ben McCormack also misses out with a hamstring strain.
However, Paul Cribbin returned to good effect against Fermanagh, and midfielder Tommy Moolick bagged two goals. With the likes of the quicksilver Daniel Flynn and crafty playmaker Niall Kelly on the field, Kildare pose a greater attacking threat than anything Down have faced thus far.
Meath were largely one-dimensional, lumping long balls in on top of Brian Sheridan with little joy, allowing the Mournemen to utilise the searing pace of Caolan Mooney on the break, while Derry showed little attacking ambition until it was too late.
Despite giving away several inches, Gerard McGovern handled Sheridan well following a difficult opening 15 minutes. However, the Burren man is an injury doubt after a heavy knock forced him off at half-time against the Oak Leafers.
McGovern would likely have been handed the man-marking job on Flynn but Burns could have to consider other options as he works out his match-ups.
The Mourne boss will have taken heart from the defensive solidity his side has shown since being roundly beaten in Ennis, and central to that revival have been the performances of experienced trio Peter Turley, Conor Maginn and Kevin McKernan.
McKernan, in particular, brings a calming influence to a young team still full of men finding their feet at this level.
Down carry plenty of momentum into tonight’s game, but O’Neill was have noted the relative ease with which Meath and Derry were snuffed out by the Mourne County’s packed defence.
Kildare have the pace and power to pose questions Down haven’t been asked in the previous two games, and for that reason the Lilywhites have a slight edge.