GAA Football

Down SFC: James Guinness hopes 2020 finalists Carryduff can keep progressing

James Guinness has become a stalwart of a talented Carryduff side who unexpectedly went all the way to the Down SFC final last year. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

DURING recent months, and the last few days in particular, there has been no end of talk about Tyrone’s National League trouncing at the hands of Kerry. The killing fields of Killarney, the transformative effect on the new All-Ireland champions, and how that sorry June day would ultimately shape a summer no-one saw coming.

It was still being spoken about after Paudie Hampsey had hoisted Sam above his head, a constant reference point as the Red Hand wheels slowly but surely started to turn. And the upshot of it all? That sometimes a defeat, at the right time, can end up taking a team to places they might not otherwise have thought possible.

Having just earned promotion to Division One, Carryduff wouldn’t have featured too heavily in the conversation when weighing up potential challengers to Kilcoo’s crown.

Talented? Sure. Bags of potential? Definitely. Ones to watch? Why not. Contenders? Hmm, not yet.

Expectations within the club were realistic too. Backboned by the teams that won three county U21 titles in-a-row, the current crop is the fruit of years of hard labour. With little senior championship experience they wanted to prove, to themselves above all, that Carryduff could compete at this level; that they could mix it with the big boys.

And so they were paired with Clonduff at Pairc Esler in the first round. The bookies couldn’t split them. The young city slickers versus the hard-edged experience of the Hilltown men – an intriguing encounter, on paper at least.

The reality, however, was entirely different.

Carryduff were caught napping from the throw-in and conceded a goal after just eight seconds. At half-time they trailed 2-6 to 0-7, a Paudie Clancy goal six minutes into the second half got shot of any remaining doubt and Clonduff ran out 11 point winners.

Not quite the 16-point shellacking of Killarney, but you catch the drift.

“We got an absolute lesson from Clonduff that night - it was men against boys,” says Carryduff and Down forward James Guinness.

“I hadn’t been able to play any of the league games before, either had John McGeough, there was a few boys coming back from injuries and that game was probably just a bit too soon for them.

“We had to regroup, have a bit of an honest chat and say ‘this is where we’re at, this is where we should be’. There’s plenty of ability in the group, we just needed that wee bit more application on match-day.

“After that game, you’d really nothing to lose in a sense, going into the back door. And then if you get a couple of wins, confidence is up.

“But Clonduff are a very good team as well, they’d be one of the ones looking to win it every year, and we caught them on a good night as well. We got our eyes opened to what was required at that level and, honestly, probably ended up the better for it.

“Still, if you’d told me after that game we’d end up in the final I wouldn’t have believed you…”

And yet, four weeks later Carryduff were going toe-to-toe with Mickey Moran’s all-conquering Magpies in the club’s first-ever senior championship final.

Before we get to that, though, the journey James Guinness, brother Daniel, most of their team-mates and, indeed, the club itself has been on bears consideration.

When the Guinness brothers’ father Brendan played alongside the likes of Down All-Ireland winners Greg Blaney, John Kelly and Mark McCartan during the late 1980s and early ’90s, Carryduff didn’t even have a place to call home.

Having looked elsewhere when their Knockbracken Road pitch was showered with glass and had its posts bent, they became known as ‘the nomads’ – playing 15 miles away in Killyleagh, also The Dub, Lamh Dhearg’s pitch in Hannahstown, Cherryvale, home of rivals Bredagh.

It wasn’t until 2001 when Carryduff eventually got their own pitch, before a second was opened in 2013. Plans for a third are included in the club’s 2019-2022 development plan.

The evolution may have been slow, but it has been steady. On the field, progress has accelerated at an even greater rate over recent years, copper-fastening a relationship between club and community that was a challenge to foster.

“It probably wasn’t as big,” says the 25-year-old Guinness, a dentist in Dublin.

“I remember us going to the odd game as kids but there wasn’t that same sort of atmosphere around the club. It wasn’t like loads of other clubs we’d be playing against where you knew all the senior players, because there probably wasn’t that same connection.

“But now that’s really starting to come about, the kids are all up at the matches, there’s senior players taking underage teams - all that is helping bridge the gap.

“Obviously there’s huge numbers at underage, but there was also a lot of good coaching done too to bring boys through, especially this generation of players.

“It started when we won the U14 A Championship, the first the club had ever won, then we won a Feile, then you go on to the team that ended up winning three county U21 titles. That’s where this current senior team largely came from.”

Of the 15 players who lined out against the Magpies in the final, eight started the previous year’s U21 final against Mayobridge. Most of those who will start against RGU Downpatrick in Saturday’s championship opener against Darragh Cross came onto the team as 16-year-olds, including Guinness.

“That’s made a big difference to that group because so many of us have been playing together for so long. At the start there was maybe an older generation of players, a few in that prime age group, and then just a load of young boys.

“It put a lot of responsibility on us to step up… that can definitely go either way, but I think it’s benefitted us no end.

“Because you’ve U19s now that’s not really done any more, but it definitely was a huge help in bringing boys through to play senior football.”

James Guinness has emerged as one of the top forwards in the county over recent years as a result, featuring regularly during Paddy Tally’s tenure, while younger brother Daniel’s all action style has seen him become an established force in county colours.

Throughout a difficult past 18 months, when the GAA calendar was up in the air for so much of the time, the siblings were able to keep each other honest.

“We’d be competitive, we’d be driving each other on,” he said of his 23-year-old brother.

“We do gym sessions, we’d have done our conditioning together when there was no training, we pushed each other on through lockdown.

“The work Daniel puts in is unbelievable, I’m not surprised at all how well he’s done when I see the gym work, the running, the push he has to get better, to get fitter, to get stronger, to improve his skills.

“I’m not shocked at all at how well he has progressed.”

And they would have loved to have been able to run out together on county final day too when it came around, only for injury to rule James out of proceedings. The fact Carryduff were there at all helped heal the hurt to some degree.

After that horror show against Clonduff, they were handed a bye after a Covid case in the Downpatrick came saw them controversially thrown out of the competition before beating Bryansford and then Ballyholland, after extra-time, in the semi-final.

“That game really could’ve gone either way, but we managed to dig it out,” says Guinness.

“That was a big win for us, because you’re up against a team like Ballyholland who have been in semi-final after semi-final, and that was our first.

“People would’ve been looking at that going into extra-time and thinking Ballyholland will close this one out. So it was great for our boys to get over the line.”

Unfortunately for him, a hamstring injury forced Guinness from the field after 55 minutes. With the final against Kilcoo just a week later, it would come too soon.

“When I went off I wasn’t sure but by that evening I was just in bits,” he recalls.

“Down were back training on the Tuesday so I went and saw Mickey Walsh and I could hardly walk straight on it. We gave it to Thursday again, but that was it unfortunately, no better.

“It was very, very disappointing to miss it.”

Kilcoo have been the one constant over the past decade, with Burren – who dethroned the Magpies in 2018 - Warrenpoint, Clonduff, Castlewellan, Mayobridge and Carryduff all contesting finals in that time.

The reigning Ulster champions proved too strong in last year’s decider, pulling away after a nip and tuck first half to land the Frank O’Hare Cup for the eighth time in nine years. Mickey Moran’s will start as heavy favourites to repeat the trick this time around, starting their campaign against Mayobridge in Newry on Sunday.

But there will be plenty of eyes on Carryduff too, as a side still coached by DJ Morgan, Cathal Murray and Paddy Doherty bids to show they were no flash in the pan.

“To get to the final of the Down championship is huge - especially for a club like Carryduff.

“You can’t take it for granted. Unless you’re Kilcoo, there’s no guarantee of being around that mix. Anyone can beat anyone else, you’ve seen that every year, and I’m sure this championship will be no different.”

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Kilcoo have been the dominant force in Down for the past decade, and will go into this championship as favourites to retain the Frank O'Hare Cup. Picture by Philip Walsh

DOMINANT KILCOO STILL THE ONES TO BEAT

CAN anybody stop Kilcoo? Burren managed it in 2018, but they are the only ones to do so since 2011 as the Magpies have swept the boards across a decade of total dominance.

Despite lifting the Frank O’Hare Cup for an eighth time in nine years, 2020 felt almost like an anti-climax for Mickey Moran’s men. Reigning Ulster champions and All-Ireland finalists the year previous, they would have dearly loved another crack on that stage.

The desire to get back there is sure to have fuelled the Kilcoo fire ahead of this latest championship campaign, which gets under way against Mayobridge on Sunday.

Despite his exploits with the Down U20s, and links to the vacant Down senior job, Conor Laverty – alongside the Johnston brothers Jerome, Ryan and Shealan - remains the attacking focal point of a Magpies side boasting the perfect mix of youth and experience.

Moran has also drafted former St Eunan’s, Letterkenny boss Richard Thornton into his backroom team. The Coalisland man was previously involved with Donegal during Rory Gallagher’s tenure, and offers a fresh voice to proceedings.

A host of clubs including Warrenpoint, Burren, Clonduff, Ballyholland and last year’s beaten finalists Carryduff – who have the talented Sean McGonigle back in action - will fancy their chances of putting it up to the men in black if given the chance.

Now under the stewardship of former Tyrone forward Ciaran McBride and Mark Copeland, Clonduff will be hoping to bury the pain of last year’s penalty shoot-out exit to Warrenpoint when they get under way against Rostrevor on Sunday.

With Barry O’Hagan’s brilliance one of the few bright spots in Down’s otherwise forgettable Championship exit to Donegal, and brother Darren having put an injury-hit year behind him, the Yellas could be a force to be reckoned with.

Burren have brought in former Armagh assistant boss Jim McCorry, and will hope their production line of exciting young talents can come of age. Indeed, Ryan Magill, Patrick McCarthy, Odhran Murdock and Danny Magill were all part of the Down U20 side that won the Ulster title in July.

Having been unavailable for county duty, it is also expected that McCorry will have hotshot forward Donal O’Hare at his disposal.

Warrenpoint, however, look most likely favourites to challenge Kilcoo.

Under the new management team of Shane Mulholland Mark Poland, the ’Point – narrowly edged out in the 2019 decider and defeated by the Magpies in last year’s semi-final – won the Division One title for the first time earlier this month. They open their campaign against Benny Coulter’s Longstone in Ballymartin tonight (7.30pm throw-in).

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