GAA Football

Down football's ups and downs from 2010 to 2020

Donal O'Hare top-scored for Down in 2020 with 1-19, his goal against Fermanagh the standout score
Paul McConville

Where they started decade?

As 2010 dawned in Down, many thoughts turned to Sam Maguire. That may seem like a bit of revisionist thinking, because the Mournemen's appearance in the All-Ireland final in September of that year could hardly have been foretold by even the most optimistic of Down fans.

However, James McCartan began his first season as manager of the county he had won two All-Ireland title with as a player, off the field the Down faithful were busy planning celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of his father's team's breakthrough triumph of 1960.

Pragmatism would dictate that the appearance of the Sam Maguire ‘where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea' at the anniversary celebrations would be as close as Down could dream of getting to the famous trophy that year.

The decade opened with the aim of getting Down back to the top division of the Allianz League and they gained promotion to Division One with a second-place finish in Division Two behind Armagh, who by a twist of fate, were managed by former Down captain and manager Paddy O'Rourke.

The Orchardmen would take the local bragging rights by winning the League final, but Down had bigger fish to fry in their Championship opener against Donegal. They won an extra-time epic in Ballybofey before giving Tyrone their fill in a semi-final defeat at Casement Park.

McCartan's panel had been bolstered by the return from the AFL of Martin Clarke, who had dazzled for Down at minor level before making the move Down Under. With players like Benny Coulter, Mark Poland and Danny Hughes in a fearsome forward line, they took to the Qualifiers with relish.

Wins over Longford, Offaly and Sligo set up an All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry and the spirit of 1960 appeared to be spurring them on. Once the Kingdom were conquered and Kildare killed off, an unlikely All-Ireland final awaited.

Their agonising one-point loss to Cork was their first defeat in six All-Ireland appearances, but coupled with promotion to Division One, it had returned Down to football's top table, albeit fleetingly.

They held their own in the top division the following season but a first round defeat in UIster to fierce rival Armagh set them on the Qualifier road again. Wins over Clare, Leitrim and Antrim set up a fourth-round showdown with Cork again. This time, though, the Rebels proved too strong running out 12-point winners in an ill-tempered affair which saw a red card for Marty Clarke in his last game in a Down jersey.

However, Down had begun the decade suggesting that the famed red and black swagger was back and with some rich talent coming through from minor and U21 teams which had recently reached All-Ireland finals, the future looked bright.

How they stand now

The fragmented nature of the 2020 season means it's hard to get a good read on a Down side which manager Paddy Tally may still consider a work in progress.

They played five League matches before the first lockdown, were awarded a walkover in their sixth as Leitrim could not field in October due to Covid issues. With promotion confirmed as a result and no League final to prepare for, they fielded a much-changed line-up in their last match, a dead rubber against Louth which they lost.

After defeating Fermanagh, they lost to Cavan and their 2020 campaign ended having played just eight games. While the key aim of the finally achieving promotion was eventually ticked off, they chance to reach an Ulster final slipped agonisingly through their fingers.

However, they do look to have finally settled on a regular number one goalkeeper for the first time since Brendan McVeigh called it a day in Rory Burns. Patrick Murdock enjoyed an up and down first senior season, but has showed enough to suggest he could offer Down some much-needed defensive solidity for years to come.

One area of concern for Tally might be the years that are catching up on the more senior members of his squad. Kevin McKernan, who won a Sigerson Cup under Tally with St Mary's, is back for another year to marshal the Down defence alongside captain Darren O'Hagan. Both bring a huge amount of experience, but have had their injury worries too.

Changing managers

James McCartan took over the Down reins in 2009 and guided them to an unlikely All-Ireland final appearance in 2010. They reached and Ulster final and All-Ireland quarter-final in 2012 before the Burren clubman stepped down after the 2014 campaign.

He was immediately succeeded by Jim McCorry, who was appointed on a three-year deal in late 2014. The Armagh native had become an adopted Mourneman due to his club championship success with Mayobridge and most notably Kilcoo. In the 2015 Allianz League campaign, McCorry managed to earn promotion back to Division One from a fiercely competitive second tier, with notable wins over Galway, Kildare and Cavan.

However, they played just two games in that year's Championship, a first round Ulster defeat to Derry and a qualifier exit against Wexford. McCorry stepped down later that summer, despite the county board stately publicly that he still had their full support.

Former All-Ireland winning Eamonn Burns was appointed for 2016 and found himself with a squad very much in transition. Many of the stars of the 2010 had called it a day and the expected influx of young talent had failed to materialise.

Down failed to win a single match in League and Championship in 2016, suffering relegation to Division Two. Burns did pull off an unlikely Ulster final appearance in 2017, a memorable semi-final win over Monaghan probably the highlight of his tenure.

Only points difference kept them for back-to-back relegations in 2017, but they did drop down to Division Three following season and Burns stepped down at the end of the 2018 season.

Tyrone man Paddy Tally, who had served in James McCartan's backroom team, was the man charged with rebuilding Down football. He came agonisingly close to achieving promotion from Division Three with only points difference nudging them out in a three-way tie with Laois and Westmeath.

They exited the Championship to Armagh in Ulster and Mayo in the Qualifiers before finally securing promotion in 2020 and losing an Ulster semi-final to eventual champions Cavan.

Changing captains

Having captained the side for much of the 2010 campaign, injury finally caught up on Ambrose Rodgers and it was Benny Coulter who led them out at Croke Park in the All-Ireland final.

Coulter held onto the role until he retired from county football in 2014, when the captaincy found its way back to Longstone in the form of Mark Poland. The Down playmaker was captain in 2014 and 2015 before Burren's Kevin McKernan took over for the 2016 season.

Clonduff's Darren O'Hagan was handed the captaincy by Eamonn Burns in 2017 and has held onto it ever since. A combative defender, O'Hagan also inspires the team with his marauding forward runs to set up scores and is adept at picking off a few points himself.

Players gone

Martin Clarke's Down senior career was brief, but stunningly effective. He became the attacking fulcrum for the 2010 team which reached the All-Ireland final, five years after helping his county to All-Ireland minor success. A star of underage and schools' football, he embarked on a career with Collingwood in the AFL after that, returning to his native county to play senior football for the first time in 2010 and 2011. He was red carded in his last Championship match for Down, a fourth-round qualifier loss to Cork and soon after made the return to Australia.

A diagnosis of Addison's disease in 2014 put paid to another Down comeback and he hung up his boots for good soon after.

Benny Coulter was 32 when he called time on his county career in November 2014 and by that stage already had 15 seasons in the red and black under his belt. He famously fielded for Down minors and seniors on the same day against Antrim in 2000 and the talismanic Mayobridge man went on to terrorise defences across the country for the next decade and a half.

Although Ulster and All-Ireland senior medals eluded him, he was awarded a deserved Allstar in 2010 and was a regular on the Ireland squad for International Rules series.

Brendan McVeigh was a stalwart between the sticks for Down for the best part of a decade. He made his debut in 2005 and his first Championship match was against Tyrone in Omagh that year. Made a series of eye-catching saves on the way to winning an Allstar in 2010 and hung up the gloves in 2014 aged 35.

New players introduced

The rise of Carryduff to senior football in Down over the last decade has been borne out by an increased representation on the Down panel, most notably the Guinness brothers Daniel and James. Both provide constant running and an eye for an incisive pass or shot. Daniel as got more time under his belt so far, but both have shown they can be integral parts of Paddy Tally's future plans.

Barry O'Hagan, younger brother of county captain Darren, has proved effective at full-forward over the last number of years and has always showed great commitment, whether starting or coming off the bench. His best performance in a Down shirt came in the Ulster SFC win over Fermanagh last year.

Since Brendan McVeigh's retirement in the middle of the decade, Down have struggled to find a regular and reliable goalkeeper. Steven Kane, Shane Harrison and Michael Cunningham are among those who have played between the sticks but Castlewellan's Rory Burns appears to have made the position his own in the last few years.

‘Buba' actually plays outfield for his club, but has shown great agility in goals for Down in an era when more football is demanded from goalkeepers.

How they will fare in 2021?

The eight games that Down played in 2020 may be a relatively small sample size from which to make an informed assessment about how they may fare in 2021. However, their Ulster SFC semi-final exit to Cavan brought into sharp focus the extremities of this current Down outfit.

They showed a determined attacking drive which allowed them to build-up a 10-point advantage on the Breffnimen. Their devastated attacking was led by Caolan Mooney and Jerome Johnston and those two players will be key again this year as Tally seeks to hone that incisive running game which proved fruitful on a number of occasions last year.

Much will depend, however, on the fitness of Donal O'Hare to spearhead their attack. The Burren man is currently nursing a knee injury, which may require surgery. Tally has bolstered their attacking reserves, bringing the likes of Liam Kerr and

The defensive discipline which was absent in the second half of their defeat to Cavan will need to be sharpened up in a concentrated League programme which features just one home game – against Westmeath – and two on the road against Mayo and Meath. They would still have the buffer of a relegation play-off if things don't go their way in Division Two North, and with their attacking quality, they may just have enough to pull-off the one-off win that could preserve their status in the division.

Although Rory Burns appears to have made the number one slot his own, Down will need to settle on a coherent kick-out strategy if they are to mount a serious challenge at Championship level.

Top Scorer of 2020

Donal O'Hare

The Burren man has got Down out of a few scrapes over the years with his metronomic point-scoring. A cousin of former Armagh scoring star Oisin McConville, splitting posts is clearly in the blood. He managed 1-19 across seven matches in 2021, 0-9 coming from the dead ball, but his standout score was the well-worked goal which turned the tide in Down's favour in Ulster quarter-final win over Fermanagh.

A lung-bursting breaking from the ever-mobile Caolan Mooney saw him offload to Daniel Guinness who played and inviting ball across goal for O'Hare to finish to the net.

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