GAA Football

NFL Focus: Down need consistency now James is back on board - Gerard Collins

Gerard Collins is one of the more experienced members of an increasingly youthful Down panel. Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran

Allianz National Football League

IT’S been all change for Gerard Collins in the last couple of years. The challenges presented by the pandemic can never be overlooked, but the slowing of pace has helped alter many people’s daily rhythm for the better.

The sense of urgency and anxiety return briefly as the Downpatrick man recounts how his inter-county commitments fitted in with work pre-Covid, and the daily commute to AIB’s north Dublin base.

“It was a nightmare,” he sighs, “I don’t miss that.

“I would’ve been running from the office at half four, jumping in the car, heading through the port tunnel to try and save a bit of time, praying there was no accidents or roadworks. Stop in Applegreen for a coffee, then straight up the road to training.

“By the time you got there, you were wrecked…”

A subsequent office relocation to Leopardstown on the south side of the city would have added more minutes staring at the back end of cars in rush hour traffic. After the guts of two years working from home, the life he once knew seems like madness.

But that’s not all that has changed. Last year baby daughter Saorlaith arrived, then there’s the wedding to fiancée Clara in December. And then there’s football.

At the end of November, James McCartan was named Down boss for the second time, bringing to an end a pain-staking search that started when Paddy Tally’s three year stint came to a somewhat surprising end at the beginning of July.

Since first being brought onto the Down panel by Jim McCorry in 2015, McCartan is the fourth manager Collins has played under. Change has been a blessing in some areas of his life but, on the inter-county stage, that lack of continuity has been damaging to Down’s ambitions.

Now, as another new era properly begins with tomorrow’s Division Two opener against Derry, he hopes the Mourne County can find the stability that has seen others flourish over time.

“Things went pretty well that first year under Jim – we got promoted to Division One, beating the likes of Galway, Kildare. I was thinking this inter-county thing’s easy. Little did I know…

“Then 2016 brought us back to earth with a bump, I don’t think it helped with the way Jim was let go. Derry beat us by a point in the Ulster Championship, we had a bad day at the office against Wexford, and after that the knives were out for Jim.

“That man brought us to Division One, if he’d had another couple of years, who knows what would’ve happened? Conor Laverty was captain in 2015 but then after Jim left, he went too. It’s a pity when you look back.

“Now, this is my eighth season playing with Down and my fourth different manager. It’s crazy. Whenever a new manager comes in they need a trial period, need to cast the net out, so the first couple of months are always a bit haphazard.

“Where if you get that consistency of a manager there for four or five years, or more, in that gap between September and December they’re pinpointing new players through the Championship, but by and large the squad’s there, they’re getting their weights programme, strength and conditioning done in those months.

“You look at Armagh who have had Kieran McGeeney there for seven or eight years now, you can see they’re becoming a force to be reckoned with – into Division One, stayed there last year.

“James and Aidan came in very late in the day this time around, they were having trial matches and challenge games because they want to find players they know can play first of all. It probably showed in the McKenna Cup that, fitness-wise, we’re still lacking a bit because other teams have had a head start on us this year.”

Something else that has changed is Collins’s role within the group. Until recent times, he still considered himself a relative newcomer to the party but now, at 31, the wing-back is one of the more experienced heads on an increasingly youthful panel.

“I have to admit I was glad to see Kevin McKernan come back this year,” he laughs.

“The first couple of training sessions I was looking around thinking ‘jeez, what’s going on here’. Then Kevy pulled up, the next training session Benny McArdle pulled up, that was me then - the old fogie jokes were directed towards them.”

Such experienced figures require little introduction, but the McKenna Cup offered management an opportunity to see what else they have at their disposal. Covid ruling several players didn’t help, while injuries continue to hamper preparations ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Owenbeg.

But the Down U20s’ Ulster title success last summer provided hope where previously there was none and, with Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke remaining at the helm, Collins hopes Down will see new talent filter through to the senior set-up each year.

“The older you get the more you realise your county career goes by in the blink of an eye. I can remember coming into my first training at the end of 2014 and it has flown by.

“So when you hear of players who won’t commit or walk away… you don’t want to regret that in years to come. You can never get that time again.

“Four of that Down U20 group have come in [Odhran Murdock, Tom Close, Andrew Gilmore and Charlie Smyth], hopefully Shealan Johnston will too later on, and I’ve been very impressed with them.

“To be looking seriously at the Ulster Championship every year, you need to be backboned by underage talent coming through and winning. When Down got to the All-Ireland final in 2010, the U21s had been to the All-Ireland final the year before, they’d won a minor All-Ireland in 2005.

“If you look at the Ulster champions of the last 10 years, they’ve all fed through from minor and U21. Success at senior level doesn’t happen at the click of a finger.

“There’s definitely the talent in Down, you’d just be hoping for that consistency now with James and Aidan. Then if Conor and Marty were to stay around the U20s for another couple of years as well, it would give that consistency and that conveyor belt that Down really has been lacking.”

It would also give the Mourne County an opportunity to move up the rankings as the memories of days when Down were an established force begin to drift.

Collins can’t recall much about the 1994 All-Ireland win, the last time Down got their hands on major silverware. However, he has fond recollections of the following year as the battle for their son’s footballing loyalties took hold in the Collins household.

“My mum’s from Tyrone, so one of my earliest memories the year they got to the All-Ireland final in ’95. My uncle bought me a Tyrone strip, Peter Canavan was my hero back then, and when I came back into the house my dad was going mental!

“Because I wouldn’t shut up about Peter Canavan and Tyrone, he got me tickets for the semi-final in Croke Park - there’s a picture of us on the way down, him a Down man sickened because I’m wearing a Tyrone strip!

“But look, it would be great to get Down back to the top table, back up to Division One. If you’re playing against the best of the best, it stands you in good stead.

“My main aim every year is still to win an Ulster Championship medal with Down - people might say you’ve no chance, but in my heart of hearts I wouldn’t come back every year if I didn’t think it was a possibility.

“With the tradition we have, it’s just been far too long since there’s been any kind of success.”

Caolan Mooney could miss tomorrow's National League opener against Derry after picking up an injury in the McKenna Cup clash with Antrim. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

VERDICT

HAVING avoided the drop straight back to Division Three last year, Down will be hoping to consolidate that position in the months ahead.

A relegation play-off victory over Laois secured their tier two status in what turned out to be Paddy Tally’s penultimate game in charge, the Galbally man’s stint coming to an end in the weeks after Ulster Championship defeat to Donegal.

The knock-on effect from that has left Down in a less than ideal position coming into the League. Finding a replacement for Tally took much longer than anticipated, with James McCartan’s return to the hot seat only ratified at the end of November.

Alongside assistant Aidan O’Rourke, the new management team was starting from scratch while other counties were well into pre-season preparation. The McKenna Cup represented an opportunity to build up fitness, but also run the rule over new blood.

The likes of Carryduff’s John McGeough, Bredagh’s Cormac O’Rawe and Warrenpoint’s Ruairi McCormack all caught the eye in narrow defeat to Donegal, while Odhran Murdock – who featured in the U20s’ Ulster title success last summer – looks a prospect.

Those young guns might see a bit more National League action that McCartan would have intended too as he waits for a host of key men to return, with Caolan Mooney, Liam Kerr and Corey Quinn among those unlikely to feature in tomorrow’s League opener against Derry.

The Mournemen might struggle to get points on the board early in their Division Two campaign, with the improving Oak Leafs followed by a home clash with Galway before the League break.

However, depending on how Kilcoo fare in the All-Ireland club Championship, McCartan will be hoping to have the likes of Ryan McEvoy, Ceilum Doherty and the Johnston brothers – Jerome, Ryan and Shealan – back for the crunch home games against Roscommon (February 26), Offaly (March 12) and their final outing in Newry against Clare (March 27). With four home games this time around, Down – more than ever – need to make them count.

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