FORMER Down forward John Clarke believes the Mournemen are primed to pull off one of the shocks of the summer when they welcome National League champions Mayo to Newry on Saturday night.
With James Horan back at the helm, the westerners were hotly tipped coming into this year’s Championship, especially after defeating Kerry in that Division One decider.
However, the wheels came off their Connacht campaign against Roscommon last month, and on Saturday night they will try to get the show back on the road at a packed Páirc Esler.
Clarke has fond memories of Down’s 2008 Ulster Championship victory over eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone in Newry, and believes a similarly charged atmosphere can turn this qualifier into a potential banana skin for Mayo.
“Down is a passionate football county and this draw has really caught the imagination,” he said.
“All the pressure is on Mayo. They’re coming off the back of that defeat to Roscommon, they’re coming under pressure from their own supporters, the media’s putting a wee bit of pressure on them to deliver.
“The pressure was on Down to beat Tipperary but they’ve got that win and they’re going into this game with nothing to lose really. It’s a Saturday night in Newry, there’s going to be a full house, the place will be buzzing; it could be a shock to the system for Mayo and Down have to use that to their advantage.
“You look back at the Tyrone game in 2008, the replay in Newry, and there’s a similar sort of feel about it. Even the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ game against Kildare where Mayo went out last year.
“They’re going in as hot favourites, there’s no doubt about that, but Down are primed for an ambush.”
Paddy Tally was part of the Galway backroom team last year when the Tribe toppled their provincial rivals in League and Championship, and the Down boss will be well acquainted with what Mayo bring to the table.
Powerhouse midfielder Matthew Ruane has been ruled out of this weekend’s game after breaking his collarbone in training. However, with Donal Vaughan and Seamus O’Shea both back in the frame for starting spots, Horan is not exactly lacking in options.
Clarke feels Tally’s in-depth knowledge will be invaluable but, given Mayo’s strength around the middle third, expects the Down management to have a plan up their sleeves to avoid being overrun early on.
“The kick-outs are going to be key,” he said.
“They struggled a bit against Tipperary, not particularly Rory Burns’s fault, but they just couldn’t get a foothold and Mayo are very strong around the middle. Hopefully they’ll have worked on a short kick-out strategy to get some primary possession, particularly in those early stages.
“I saw enough in the second half against Tipperary, and at different stages in the Armagh game, to know Down have real quality up-front and off the bench in the likes of Corey Quinn and Barry O’Hagan.
“That can trouble Mayo, particularly with the form Connaire Harrison and Pat Havern are showing at the minute – they’ve stood up over the last couple of games and they’re big players for Down.
“Having the pace of Caolan Mooney back is a major plus too, and Benny McArdle had an excellent game against Tipp, so there are plenty of reasons to believe Down are in with a chance here.
“Paddy Tally came up against Mayo when he was involved with Galway, he will know Mayo football, he’ll know the players and from a tactical point of view, hopefully he’ll have Mayo sussed out as well.”