Quality in Down club scene perfect preparation for county theatre says Mourne stalwart Benny McArdle
THE hammer-and-tongs quality of the Down club scene should leave the Mourne county team well prepared for back-to-back battles in the League and Championship, says experienced full-back Benny McArdle.
Down resume Division Three action determined to drive on to promotion by winning their remaining fixtures against bottom two Leitrim and Louth before turning their focus to what McArdle describes as a “smash and grab” Ulster Championship campaign which begins against Fermanagh.
McArdle believes that success in the first could provide a springboard to more in the sprint for the Anglo-Celt Cup and that Down's competitive club environment is ideal preparation for both.
“To get an opportunity to finish out the League campaign with those last two games is great,” said the experienced defender.
“There is a sprinkling of youth coming through in Down and the younger guys are setting new standards so if we can get up to Division Two with those new guys who are coming in it would be a great help for them.
“If we can get promotion then an Ulster Championship becomes a possibility. It'll be ‘smash and grab' where you're going in and none of the teams really have any form and I think Down football is in a strong-enough place to get us ready for that.
“I think it's one of the better club championships and I think you'll find that the Down players will be in a good place come October. The club scene is very strong. The upper-end with Kilcoo, Mayobridge, Burren, Bryansford… they are all strong teams that could compete with anybody.”
Kilcoo – the Ulster club champions and last year's All-Ireland finalists - have proved that point and McArdle is confident that Down can be a match for any of their Ulster rivals on their day.
Last season they battled back to come close to beating Armagh before the Orchard county won a thriller in extra-time and also ran Mayo close in Newry in the Qualifiers.
“That's one thing about Down,” he said: “If we can get things to click it can happen very quickly.
“It happened under Eamonn Burns three years ago. Things just seemed to click and we got to an Ulster final. That's what everyone is playing for, we hope we can do that again.”
Now 33, McArdle – whose wife recently gave birth to their first child Daniel – admits he is on a “rolling contract” and is in “bonus territory” but he is enjoying his football as much as ever and before returning to county action he will concentrate on club football with Annaclone.
“Whenever we got back to the club that first week it was so refreshing to get back at it,” he said.
“What the GAA has done in prioritising the club is the right move and it's good to be back, we have a new manager in (former player John Haughey) so we're hopeful of giving the intermediate championship a run. We'll see how we're going over these first three league games and then go into it.
“It's all going to come onto us very quickly and I think it has given a team like us more of a chance. There's no form, no team will have form going into it so we are optimistic, we'll see how it goes.
“We literally have no idea we're at. Some boys came back fitter after the lockdown and then you have the opposite end of the spectrum as well.
“We've been playing training games and they're feisty enough but we'll not know where we're at exactly until we've played a couple of games. You could find that you're flying or you could realise that you're miles off it.”