SUNDAY’S trip to Tipp is the most important game Down have faced in years as they bid to avoid a summer spent in the Tier Two Championship, according to former Mourne County star John Clarke.
Paddy Tally takes his team to Clonmel for their Division Three opener, determined to banish the painful memories of last year’s promotion near miss when final day defeat to Louth saw them consigned to another campaign in the third tier.
The stakes have been upped considerably since then, with the teams left in Divisions Three and Four of the National League left to fight it out in the new Tier Two Championship unless they make it to their provincial final.
Such an outcome is unthinkable for Down, says Clarke, and he believes the first three games – away to Tipperary, home to Derry and away to Cork – will set the tone for their entire season, and potentially for years to come.
“When the fixtures came out, I was looking at the first three games, and this one in particular, thinking this is going to be so vital for Down,” said Clarke, who hosts The Irish News's Weekender podcast.
“It’s probably the biggest game since the Ulster final a few years back. It’s the biggest National League game we’ve had in quite a while. If Down don’t win two of those first three games, they’ll find it very hard to be in that promotion shake-up.
“Last year was a setback but now, with the Championship structure changing, it’s two-fold – you’re not getting out of Division Three, and you’re playing in a B Championship.
“These first three games are going to tell a tale. It seems strange to say it in January, but the result could have a big bearing on the direction of Down’s season.”
It’s 10 years since Clarke and co were involved in an unexpected run to the All-Ireland final, and he fears there could be a player exodus should the Mournemen fail to win promotion this time around.
“The buzz around the Armagh and Mayo Championship games maybe papered over the disappointment of missing out on promotion a bit last year, but this year you could end up playing somebody like Waterford in a B Championship game in Newry.
“You’re only going to get a couple of hundred people at a game like that so it’s important for the long-term, and for the stability of Down going forward, that they get out of Division Three.
“From a player’s perspective, they might say yes and talk it up, but it would be hard to get excited about. They could go to the States, England, back to their club and you’d be left with a skeleton squad.
“Supporters aren’t going to get excited about a Saturday night B Championship game in Newry. It’s just not going to get the blood flowing.”
Down were three-point winners over Tipperary when they met in an All-Ireland qualifier in Newry last June, and it is a relatively new-look Premier side that will take the field on Sunday.
Not only have they a new man on the sidelines after 2011 minor All-Ireland winning manager David Power took over from Liam Kearns, but several star players have also opted out for the foreseeable.
Forwards Michael Quinlivan and Josh Keane are among them, with Shane O'Connell, Liam Casey, Liam McGrath, Paul Maher and Ben Hyland also unavailable.
With the likes of Caolan Mooney and Connaire Harrison out of contention for Sunday, Down are not without their selection problems either, but Clarke is confident they have enough quality to start the campaign with a win.
He added: “It’s a tough ask but Tipperary have lost a few key players from last year, and Down did beat them at home in the Championship – they’re not the force they were a couple of years ago. I would fancy Down, but it’s still going to be extremely difficult.
“The fact it’s in Clonmel and not in Thurles, that’s probably an extra incentive for Tipp, it could give them a bit of an edge with it being a smaller venue, a bit out of the way.
“I know Paddy Tally won’t want to build the game up too much, he’ll want to keep as much pressure as possible off the players, but from a Down perspective it’s vital they come away with two points on Sunday.
“It would be a seriously long trek home if they lose.”