Down finishers to see them past Longford
Allianz Football League Division Three: Down v Longford (tonight, 7pm, Páirc Esler)
IN winning their must-win game against Derry, it must have felt a strange sensation for Down to be heading into the break knowing they were back behind the Oak Leafers in the table.
Stranger still that they find themselves in even more of a life or death situation this evening, knowing that defeat would leave Longford with a four-point gap on them.
It's hard to get away from the idea that Down will have the bulk of their lifting done by 9pm, having already played Tipperary, Derry, Cork and now Longford. They will always have felt that there would be more points to be had in their final three games against Offaly, Leitrim and Louth.
Yet even if they were to win all three, defeat in Newry this evening could very well spell the end for their promotion hopes – particularly because if Longford were to win one more game, Down would be relying on a three-way tie at the end to avoid missing out on head-to-head.
There's a lot of ‘if' to get through before you could countenance any of that, but none of it lessens the weight of tonight's events.
Padraic Davis spoke earlier this week of how his team has learned from last year's defeat, when the midlanders were favourites but were hit by a Donal O'Hare hat-trick.
Longford conceded just one other goal in the whole of last year's league campaign, but were mid-table finishers who seemed destined for a similar campaign this year.
That may yet be the case, for while they are the ones hugging in closest to Cork at the top of the table, their four toughest fixtures are still to come, starting this evening.
If anything, drawing in Offaly perhaps shows their actual standing, and yet they will come north with confidence after a start that saw them win a first O'Byrne Cup in 20 years and then push into an unbeaten first part of the league.
Down will have earmarked Robbie Brady as their most pertinent threat in attack and are likely to send Darren O'Hagan his way as the Clonduff man looks to continue his excellent form.
Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of their game in Cork was Paddy Tally's substitutions. On a team that lacks experience in a lot of areas, he took Kevin McKernan, Paul Devlin and Gerard Collins all off during their 0-16 to 1-8 loss in Páirc Úi Chaoimh.
There was very little life about the Ulster side that afternoon, but they can be a different animal in front of the Saturday night home crowd in Newry.
It was Donal O'Hare who got the hat-trick in Pearse Park last year, but so far this spring it has been Jerome Johnston catching the eye, coming straight in off the back of his run with Kilcoo to the All-Ireland club final.
Barry O'Hagan has also come back into an attack that is still without Connaire Harrison, while Liam Kerr must be feeling the itch as he remains their man off the bench despite impacting heavily.
Cory Quinn has been doing well in a similar role and, in truest fashion of the modern game, it might be Down's finishers rather than their starters that take them to two vital points.