Galway clash could come too soon for developing Down
Allianz National Football League Division Two: Down v Galway (today, Pairc Esler, 5pm – live on BBC iPlayer)
NOBODY was in any doubt about the extent of the challenge Down faced in Division Two, but this period was always likely to the rockiest part of the road.
Of the eight counties in the second tier, most observers would have picked Derry and Galway, possibly Roscommon, to make the running in the race for promotion to Division One.
Cork have arrested their slide but remain inconsistent. Andy McEntee’s Meath fall into the same category. Clare have the players to punch holes in anyone on their day, while Offaly and, to some degree Down, remain relative unknown quantities at this level.
Even though the Mournemen managed to save their own skin in a relegation play-off with Laois last year, the truncated nature of the 2021 League made it difficult to establish a clear picture of where Down stood after earning promotion.
This season may not be so forgiving, but the fixtures at the back end of the campaign at least offer some light at the end of the tunnel, even if these opening weeks are a struggle. Without being anywhere near their best, the Oak Leafs still had seven points to spare in their League opener at Owenbeg last week.
James McCartan was frustrated with his side’s speed on the break. Given their relatively late return to training compared to others, it is perhaps understandable that fitness levels have not quite reached the required levels just yet.
He also pointed to the missed opportunities – Caolan Mooney’s shot at goal, brilliantly cleared off the line by Ethan Doherty - would have closed the gap to two after the break. But there was always the sense that if Derry needed to move further through the gears, they would have.
Having Mooney available after picking up a knock in McKenna Cup action against Antrim was a welcome boost, as was the ahead of schedule return of Burren playmaker Liam Kerr from a shoulder injury.
Saval forward Pat Havern and wing-backs Pierce Laverty and Daniel Guinness returned to training during the week and are nearing a return. The break in the National League after this weekend should offer them the time to force themselves into contention for clash with Meath on February 20.
Taking anything from this evening’s game would be a welcome boost ahead of that trip to Navan, and the remainder of the League where – especially if some of the Kilcoo contingent return to the ranks after their All-Ireland campaign – there are winnable games down the stretch, home clashes with Offaly and Clare surely crucial even at this early stage.
McCartan will have been relieved to see full-back Finn McElroy and forward Andrew Gilmore, both impressive so far this year, emerge unscathed from Ulster University’s Sigerson exit to DCU on Wednesday, while Peter Fegan featured in Queens’ defeat to a David Clifford-inspired University of Limerick.
All three are named in the starting 15 tonight. Indeed, the only change Down have made is in goals, with Gary McMahon replacing Rory Burns between the sticks – the experienced Warrenpoint man’s first National League start.
On a difficult first outing last weekend, Burns twice got away with loose passes in open play against Derry, while another let-off saw the off-colour Shane McGuigan crash his shot against the bar after Burns kicked the ball straight to McGuigan’s Oak Leaf team-mate Shane Heavron.
With Galway completely dominating Meath’s kick-out in a comprehensive victory in Salthill, Down cannot afford to give the Tribe anything to cling to. Unsurprisingly, Padraic Joyce has named an unchanged side from that game, when the Royals didn’t manage a single score until the 45th minute of a contest played in driving wind and rain.
Galway undoubtedly made the best of the elements, while Meath were nowhere near the races, but the one-sided nature of that game must be a concern for Down. A decent start against Derry wasn’t ultimately reflected on the scoreboard as the game slipped from their hands – the Mournemen can’t let the Tribe gather a head of steam or there will be no way back.
Only in Division Two as a result of Jack McCarron’s dramatic late winner in their relegation play-off defeat to Monaghan, Galway – even without buccaneering forward Damien Comer - are intent on showing they are too good for the second tier.
They can do so again this evening, but Down will hope better days may lie ahead.
Down: G McMahon; P Fegan, F McElroy, G Collins; R McCormack, N McParland, D O’Hagan; A Doherty, O Murdock; C Mooney, L Kerr, C McCartan; B O’Hagan, K McKernan, A Gilmore
Galway: C Flaherty; K Molloy, S Kelly, L Silke; D McHugh, J Daly, C McDaid; P Kelly, M Tierney; O Gallagher, R Finnerty, F O Laoi; S Walsh, P Conroy, T Culhane