Danny Hughes: Down sealing promotion can't address deep-rooted issues that go beyond senior team
DOWN'S season will hinge on this weekend’s result against Laois in Newry.
Winning a relegation game is not something to be celebrated, trust me, while Donegal wait in the Championship wings later this month.
One has to be realistic – on their day, Donegal are one of the contenders for an Ulster and an All-Ireland title.
Michael Murphy’s availability or not, may well reduce the possibility of returning a third All-Ireland title this season.
Down are not yet near Donegal’s level and while many of us fans dared to dream last season during that first half against Cavan, the implosion in the second half felt a bit familiar.
The optimism this weekend stems from the fact that Laois are no world-beaters.
As a county we have so much to do, it is hard to know where to start.
I am yet to be convinced by any development squads producing the necessary talent.
Simply because it has not yet produced any results of note.
No titles at any level.
Continuing to throw money at an elitist academy for 14 to 15-years-olds seems a massive waste of time and resources -
time that could be better spent in helping all schools in the county at Primary, MacRory, Vocational and Higher Education levels compete better against the best schools in Ulster.
While this weekend’s result will not solve any of those issues, the current crop of senior intercounty players have committed hugely and deserve some small measure of progress, even for themselves.
Playing at a higher level will inevitably will help acclimatise players in the long-term to reaching better standards.
Ironically, measuring success is increasingly different now from even my own experiences at intercounty level.
The gap between the top teams and the middle to lower tiered teams has widened significantly.
You could argue the gap between Dublin and the rest is significant.
And to be honest I am not sure if that gap can ever be reeled in.
It’s kind of depressing and scary – but we are in a new age of super-power dominance.
For Down to make progress, the long absence without an Ulster title has to be something to be overcome, not unlike Monaghan’s feat in 2013 and 2015.
Retaining Division Two status is a small battle in a wider war that needs to be won.
Armagh are in a similar boat and have been unlucky to find themselves in a relegation battle.
They have played well up to now but they meet a Roscommon team who will hold no fear of the Orchard county as they have beaten them in the recent past.
Previously I have fancied Armagh to win big games, however they have failed to deliver, so I will hold in reserve my opinion for fear of jinxing a positive result against the ‘Rossies’.
I will hang my hat on Monaghan beating Galway though.
Monaghan have surprised me this season as I doubted their depth in an aging squad, yet invariably were unlucky not to beat Donegal and Tyrone.
The latter teams are contenders for an All-Ireland crown so you have to admire Monaghan’s spirit and determination in such ties.
I maintain significant reservations about this Galway side.
They have probably one of the best players in Ireland in Shane Walsh yet have found themselves being beaten by half-time in games against top table teams.
You have to admire Padraig Joyce's philosophy – from what I see this is attacking being the best form of defence.
As a result, as a group, Galway have forgotten how to defend and have been too easily penetrated.
Conor McManus is regaining match fitness, Conor McCarthy is playing well and Monaghan look very fit.
Shane Walsh is worth two players so will need to be well marshalled by the Farneymen to ensure divisional status is retained.
Tyrone and Donegal are in bonus territory, as one eye will always gravitate towards the Championship.
Kerry will provide another stern test for Dooher and Logan (or is it Logan and Dooher?)
There is no great love between the sides, due in part to Kerry’s inferiority complex that arose out of those games in the ‘Noughties’.
You could argue that Kerry are closer to breaking Dublin’s dominance, yet Kerry have only one All-Ireland title to show for it in the last decade.
Tyrone and Kerry are almost battling for second place with both sides ‘Kryptonite’ still Dublin.
The Dubs will be showing their teeth to Donegal – who most likely will be playing without Murphy, their commander-and-chief.
Donegal without Murphy is like Barcelona with Messi.
But even Messi can't do what Murphy can.
Elsewhere, Cavan should beat Wicklow and will wonder, given last season’s performances, how they have found themselves in this position.
Derry should continue the great form they have shown but Limerick will provide a test.
The Oak Leafers are a side coming of age and with a good group of players, I think they will be well equipped to compete against any side in the second division next year.
Derry find themselves in a position of their own making to an extent but the penny has dropped now and if there is any chance of them re-joining the top table in Ulster, progress and consolidation within either of the top two tiers of the League is critical.
Offaly are on somewhat of a crest of a wave and Fermanagh will be well aware of the threat and momentum John Maughan’s men are on.
Maughan is one of the most experienced GAA managers left in the game and one remembers those days of taking Mayo to All-Ireland finals in the 90s.
His teams have always played football the right way.
Ryan McMenamin is at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, however, he is doing a great job in the Erne County despite all the challenges.
Should Fermanagh beat Offaly, McMenamin can be very proud of his players.
Last but certainly not least is an Antrim side brimming with confidence.
Enda McGinley’s goals would have certainly had promotion as number one.
League progress out of the bottom tier is necessary for a county that has good footballers.
Some are as committed (perhaps more committed even noting little historical success) as any other intercounty players plying their trade in the top table teams.
The difference is an accident at birth, luck, fate...
Antrim has done it in the best way possible throughout the League campaign to date, winning games by the minimum.
Therefore, they are developing character and a mental toughness that will be needed this week down in Waterford.
I fancy the Saffrons to continue on their journey and secure promotion to Division Three.
Good luck to them.