All about inches as Down start promotion bid with trip to Tipperary

Down captain Darren O'Hagan, centre, and team-mates celebrate following the win over Tipperary at Pairc Esler last year.
Down captain Darren O'Hagan, centre, and team-mates celebrate following the win over Tipperary at Pairc Esler last year. Down captain Darren O'Hagan, centre, and team-mates celebrate following the win over Tipperary at Pairc Esler last year.

Allianz National Football League Division Three: Tipperary v Down (tomorrow, Clonmel, 2pm)

By Andy Watters

AS AL Pacino said in the movie ‘Any Given Sunday’, success in life and football all comes down to “inches” and the “inches we need are everywhere around us”.

Down will know that. If they’d scored one more point last year, or conceded one less Paddy Tally’s side wouldn’t be planning for a road trip to far away Tipperary tomorrow because they’d be playing in the second division. They missed out on promotion by a single point on scoring difference.

Those are the small margins that existed last season and it’ll be the same this year so tomorrow’s opener is vital for the Mournemen who have promotion rivals Derry and Cork to come in their next two games.

Despite missing out on promotion by such a slender margin last year, Down gave a decent account of themselves in the Championship and that suggests that this is a resilient, determined group. First they pushed Armagh to extra-time in Ulster and then there was a win over tomorrow’s opponents in the Qualifiers and a battling display in a loss to Mayo.

That Qualifier loss to Down, which had followed relegation from Division Two, proved to be the end of the road for Tipp manager Liam Kearns and he has been replaced by David Power, the man who coached the county minors to the All-Ireland title in 2011.

However, he had hardly got his new bainisteoir’s gilet on when he was rocked by the news that Michael Quinlivan (scorer of 1-1 in the All-Ireland minor final in 2011) and the team’s star forward was not going to be available this season.

Quinlivan isn’t the only one to opt out - Liam McGrath, Josh Keane, Shane O’Connell and Liam Casey are also absent. So Power has had a lot of work to do and he scored his first win as senior manager against Kerry (mostly an U20 side) in the third round of Munster’s pre-season McGrath Cup.

Skipper Conor Sweeney top-scored with 1-6, including a penalty against the Kingdom and will have to be watched closely by the Mourne defence tomorrow. Tally may dispatch his skipper, Darren O’Hagan, to try and keep a lid on him.

Tally is without arguably his best player as well. Caolan Mooney is unavailable as he recovers from the injuries he sustained in an incident on a night out, while Connaire Harrison and midfielder Niall Donnelly miss out tomorrow too.

Down are also minus the Kilcoo players – the Johnston brothers, Ryan and Jerome, Paul Devlin and possibly Ryan McEvoy - but Tally can still field an experienced line-up that should have been encouraged by deserved wins over Antrim and Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup group stages. They will have benefitted from running into competition winners Tyrone at the semi-final stage – the first time Down had reached the last four in seven seasons.

Tomorrow’s game has been billed as Down’s most important in years and, while that is stretching it a little perhaps, it is a very important fixture for Tally’s men because no promotion means that tier two football is more probable than possible for the five-time Sam Maguire winners.

Tomorrow will give us an early indication of what Tally’s side can expect this year. If they are good enough to get it, victory, even a draw, means they take points off a promotion rival and start the campaign on the front foot.

Defeat means they lose momentum immediately and with Derry (home) and Cork (away) to follow the pressure for results will be cranked up.

However you stack this up, it’s a difficult opener for Down and they’ll miss the confidence and pace of the likes of Mooney and Harrison. That said, Tipp are missing key men too and they have less strength-in-depth. Last season, Tally’s men rode their luck on the road and against a new-look Tipp team with a new manager in place they get the nod to grab a narrow win. It’ll be a long way home if they don’t.