Glimpses of quality but Down have a long way to travel
Story of the Season
DOWN were never really as bad as results suggested in the first of Eamonn Burns’s three years in charge when they failed to win a match in League and Championship. They very much punched above their weight in 2017 to reach an Ulster final and stay afloat in Division Two and the inconsistency which has been an unwelcome trademark in recent years, continued in 2018.
After three National League games, there was cautious optimism. They’d won two out three Division Two games and whispers of promotion back to the top flight they’d been unceremoniously chewed up and spat out of two years were gathering pace.
An opening day win over Pete McGrath’s Louth side set the early tone. Full-forward Connaire Harrison looked to have picked up where he left off in 2017 with a game-winning 1-3 and the Mournemen were up and running. Harrison and Down’s fortunes took a sharp turn in their next game however – a home tie against Cork which saw the big Glasdrumman red carded, his brother and goalkeeper Shane make a mistake which led to a goal and the Rebels leave Newry with a six-point win.
However, a win over Roscommon in Dr Hyde Park looked to have at least set them on the road to safety, with promotion talk gathering apace. More home woe, though, this time against Clare scuppered the hopes of the latter with a survival scrap now very much the priority after the Bannermen’s two-point win.
Not the for the first time this year, Cavan would pile on the pain for their Ulster rivals with a three-point win at Kingspan Breffni and the thick blanket of snow which covered much of the country in early March also frustrated their attempts to turn things around. Their next scheduled game against Tipperary fell foul of the weather while a four-goal thumping by Meath plunged them into the red zone and took their fate out of their own hands.
When the fixtures were rearranged, the task facing Down was clear. They had to beat Tipperary and hope that old boss Pete McGrath could guide Louth to a win over the Royals.
It was an effective dead rubber for Tipp, but with plenty on the line for Down, they managed to score a third League win of the season. It wasn’t enough as Meath easily fought off an early Louth onslaught to seal their safety. Ultimately, Down would be relegated with six points having stayed up with five the previous season. They finished level on points with Cork, but the Rebels’ win over the Mournemen kept them safe.
Still, this is the county that comes alive at Championship time. They were handed a favourable tie at home to Antrim, the Saffrons themselves coming off the back of a disappointing League campaign in which they had failed to escape the bottom division.
The clash was a typically muted affair, with Down’s greater quality in attack allowing them to run out relatively comfortable winners but it was an encounter that ill-equipped them for an Ulster semi-final against Donegal. Even the 11th minute dismissal of Donegal’s Allstar defender Neil McGee couldn’t sway things in Down’s direction. It was all over by half-time, if not earlier. There were 25 minutes on the clock and 1-8 next to Donegal’s name on the scoreboard before Down’s managed to register a point.
They may have gone out with a whimper in that match, but when hovering over the Championship trap door in their second round Qualifier with Cavan, they at least showed some fight... perhaps too much. There were first half black cards for influential pair Kevin McKernan and Connaire Harrison, but they still managed to carve out a four-point with 20 minutes to go with forwards Ronan Millar and Sean Dornan stepping up to the plate.
However, a Cavan goal and a late save from Breffni keeper James Farrelly to deny Darren O’Hagan eventually ended the Championship and Burns’s reign. His opposite number that day Mattie McGleenan - himself in his penultimate game at the Breffni helm – was forced to admit his side ‘stole’ it. Down’s frustrations boiled over at the final whistle with a desperate bout of grappling and shoving bringing their season to a sorry end.
Down had many mitigating factors to point to – the loss of Harrison and McKernan for most of the Cavan game and absence through injury for the whole Championship of excellent half-back Darragh O’Hanlon.
There were still occasionally glimpses of what they are capable of in 2018 and they are far from a lost cause, but the Ulster semi-final defeat to Donegal shows just how far they have to travel.
What They Need
For only the second time since Pete McGrath brought his illustrious spell as Down manager to an end in 2002, the Mournemen will begin a season without an All-Ireland winner at the helm. Since McGrath departed the hot seat, Paddy O’Rourke, Ross Carr and DJ Kane, James McCartan and Eamonn Burns have all been tasked with bringing back the glory days, not to mention the number of their former team-mates they’ve had in their backroom teams.
Turning to Jim McCorry was a break from that recent tradition in 2015, but the all-conquering Kilcoo boss lasted only a year and now it is the turn of Paddy Tally to win hearts, minds and football matches. Maybe his predecessors – apart from McCorry – felt the weight of the county’s history too heavily on them, the pressure to play ‘the Down way’. Tally has already indicated that his way will be the way that gets the best out of the players at his disposal. Down can therefore expect a more pragmatic approach, which is probably top of the ‘what they need’ list. Allied to that is a discernible way of playing, a tailored game plan which appears to have been lacking in recent years. For those two things to bed in will take time and promotion from Division Three, which has got to be their primary results-based aim, may not be as straightforward as it seems. However, as Armagh showed last year, the third tier is fertile testing ground. Tally must be afforded patience from supporters and commitment from players if he is to change Down from an perpetual yo-yo county to perennial diners at the top table. He’s not short on ambition in that regard, but will be savvy enough to know that it will not be easily achieved. So the new boss may have to do a fair bit of evangelising in the winter months to get that oh so crucial ‘buy in’ from players that a manager needs when he is the new broom. He’ll be respectful of tradition but not bound by it and will not simply settle for a quick return to Division Two, there must be signs of progress too and evidence his methods are taking root.
3 Manager Status 75 words
After spells in the backroom at Tyrone, Down, Derry and, most recently Galway, highly-regarded coach Paddy Tally will take his first step in county management in his own right following Eamonn Burns’s three-year stint. One of the brains behind the Red Hands’ maiden All-Ireland success in 2003, Tally enjoyed Sigerson Cup success with St Mary’s in 2017. He brings with him Gavin McGilly and Stephen Beattie from that university success with Down’s Allstar-winning forward Benny Coulter also forming part of the new management team.
For a team that struggled to find consistency this year, it wasn’t easy for individual player to stand out in that regard.
Connaire Harrison dragged Down through games at times, but his black card against Cork in the League and his red against Cavan in the Championship proved crucial in both games. Shay Millar was one of the few who emerged from a dour Championship encounter with Antrim with any credit and is settling nicely into the Down team.
However, for shear work-rate, determination and refusal to give up Darren O’Hagan was probably Down’s standout performer this year. The Clonduff defender is an integral part of a team often derided for its defensive shortcomings. He is one of the most tenacious markers in Ulster and even stood managed to impress in the Championship trouncing against Donegal.
End of the Line
The ‘proceed with caution’ section. No current Down players have announced that their days in red and black are over and a glance at the age profile of the squad would give you the reason why. Shorn of the experience of Mark Poland and Aidan Carr this year, only bustling midfielder Peter Turley could be classed in the veteran’s category. However, the Downpatrick fireman showed this year that he still has the appetite for the fight and could be called to put out some fires in 2019.
What new manager Paddy Tally may have to contend with is the inavailability of some players, whether through work, travel or study commitments. He’s already been dealt a blow in that regard with Niall McParland’s decision to take up a teaching post in Qatar, meaning the Glenn man won’t be due home until June.
The New Breed
The restructuring of the age grades means the route from U17 to U20 to senior is a bit more staggered than it has been in recent years. Paddy Tally may look to Down’s U20 squad this year for fresh faces to revitalise the senior set-up. They had two decent outings against Antrim and Derry in this year’s championship, scoring 4-15 from play against the Saffrons before being edged out by two points by the Oak Leafers. Conor McCrickard caught the eye again having been central to his county’s 2017 Ulster MFC (U18) win over Armagh. The Liatroim forward bagged 2-2 against Antrim for the U20s and a further four points in the defeat to eventual champions Derry and could be close to a senior call-up. Liam Kerr and Aaron Devlin are two other forwards who could force themselves in the new manager’s plans while Paudie Poland has been in fine scoring form for Burren in the Down senior championship and may be another one to watch.