Allianz National Football League Division Two: Down v Louth (tomorrow, Pairc Esler, 2pm)
A DRAW against Louth tomorrow sends Down back to Division Two at the first time of asking, extends their unbeaten run to six games and bodes well for their Ulster Championship prospects.
The Mournemen know what they have to do and they’d have taken the offer of this scenario if you’d offered it to them after they lost their League opener to Laois back in January.
Since that uncertain start, the Mournemen have won five games on-the-trot and now sit on top of the table on 10 points with Laois second on eight and looking good to take one of the promotion berths.
The landscape could all change tomorrow though and Louth, who were relegated alongside Down last year, would also have taken this scenario before the first ball was thrown in.
Like Down, Wayne Kierans’ side lost their opener at home – a disappointing 0-9 to 1-8 loss to Longford – but they recovered to win three out of their next four and, because their game with Westmeath was postponed last weekend, they still have two fixtures to play.
Victory in Newry tomorrow would see them secure head-to-head advantage over Down and leave them in a great position to force their way up to the second tier going into their rescheduled meeting with Westmeath which would then be played the following weekend, pushing the Division Three final back by a week.
Westmeath and Longford (both on seven points) meet tomorrow and are still in the race, so the final table could throw up a three-way tie, head-to-heads and/or scores-for calculations before promotion is decided.
However, in footballing terms the equation remains very simple for all the competing counties – win and see where the two points take you.
Last Saturday, Paddy Tally’s Down men were pushed all the way by a Carlow side that had struggled to cope with their movement early on but shut down their attacks and forced free after free on the counterattack to take a half-time lead.
In a topsy-turvy, free-dominated game that included 17 cards, the Mournemen dug themselves out of a hole in the second half thanks to no shortage of commitment and the individual quality of the likes of Caolan Mooney, Donal O’Hare and Paul Devlin. O’Hare, arguably the best forward in Division Three, kicked a superb winner in the dying seconds, the third time in five games that Down had snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Tally has used 33 players this year and five substitutes in every game but his team has become increasingly settled over this League programme. Eleven players have started the last three games and, although Paul Devlin and Ryan Johnston will be pushing for starting roles tomorrow, Tally won’t tinker too much for this crucial game.
Meanwhile, Louth manager Kierans is expected to have forward Ryan Burns, Derek Maguire and Conor Early available for the Pairc Esler clash.
Louth were sitting top of the table with three straight wins when Carlow knocked the wind out their sails with a one-point at Dr Cullen Park but they remain in the hunt with their sights set on promotion.
Discipline could make the difference tomorrow and both sides have work to do in that department. Down had two men sent off in Carlow last weekend while Louth have finished only one game this year with a full complement of players. That hasn’t stopped them racking up some impressive totals though including 5-16 against Sligo in Drogheda.
There have been five others as well and forwards like Eoghan Duffy, Sam Mulroy will look to test a Down defence that has conceded just one ‘major’ in four games.
Five minutes of brilliance from Connaire Harrison decided the issue when these counties met last year but it is defensive solidity that has been the bedrock for Down’s winning run this season.
With their running game developing, the in-form Mournemen get the nod to win tomorrow and book their passage to Division Two.