GAA Football

It would be nice to see Seamie's flag out again but Down are a long way from their glory days

Mickey Linden was one of the stars of the Down teams of the 1990s

WE buried our good friend and neighbour Seamus Tucker this week.

Born and reared in Annaclone, ‘Seamie' crossed the county line into Armagh when he married his late wife Carol and they brought up their children Sharon, John, Enda and Leon in the Orchard County. Sincere condolences to them and to their families.

‘Seamie' was a great character. He played for many years in the Armagh leagues as a no-nonsense corner-back but he was always a Down man, 100 per cent, and he loved the banter.

Every county rivalry has its own character and history. Armagh and Tyrone came through together like a pair of squabbling sisters in the noughties so there can be a spiteful edge to their feuding.

Armagh-Down is different. The entire North was behind Down in the 1960s when they brought the Sam Maguire across the border and the respect for those teams is probably why the Armagh-Down jousting is, for the most part, good-natured.

It's still fierce though and there would have been plenty of slagging throughout the 1980s when both counties were going well and Seamie's red and black flag stuck out defiantly among the orange and white in the build-up to the National League final in 1983.

As a kid in Croke Park that day I remember looking round to see my aunt sitting three rows behind us. I smiled, she smiled and then I spotted her red and black scarf. I didn't realise she supported ‘the enemy' and I stopped smiling. She didn't and she went home happy when the late, great Ambrose Rogers scored a famous goal to win the game for Down.

The Mournemen didn't win much else in that decade but you expected that another good team was just around the corner. And it was.

In 1991, Pete McGrath's side beat Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final and Seamie's flag stayed out for the entire summer as Down won Ulster and marched to their fourth Sam Maguire. Three years later, McGrath's Mournemen did it again and Seamie's flag was out again.

What a team Down were then. Absolutely dripping with talent, pace and physicality and sprinkled with magic dust and it's impossible for anybody born before 1990 to view Down as anything other than footballing royalty.

But 1990 is a brave while ago now.

A Down supporter, someone brought up during those halcyon days in red and black when Connaire Harrison's da climbed onto the roof of the stand at Croke Park with his Down flag and his tricolour and ‘Wee James' and Withnell, Burns and Blayney did the business of the pitch, lamented the demise of her county after the chastening loss to Roscommon in Newry a fortnight ago.

“I was looking at it and I just thought: ‘What happened?'” she said.

“I was thinking: ‘What happened to yous boys? Did yous forget how to play football?'”

Ulster football needs a strong Down but there is grave danger that the Mournemen will be relegated to Division Three meaning that – unless they produce something remarkable in Ulster – they won't be part of the Sam Maguire competition this year. As my friend asked: What happened?

There are still good players in Down and passion for the game and of course the county is home to All-Ireland club champions Kilcoo and Down's U20s won the Ulster title last year.

Hope remains but those outstanding achievements don't guarantee success at county senior level. For evidence, look at 2010 when Down resurfaced as All-Ireland contenders during James McCartan's first spell as manager.

They were a kick of the ball away from winning the final against Cork and it seemed that the red and black swagger was back. Most of the 11 seasons since have been a struggle and now Down are facing the ignominy of the Tailteann Cup.

Offaly come to Newry on Saturday. Like Down, the Faithful County have one point from four games and they are propping them up at the foot of Division Two on scoring difference. The team that loses will almost certainly be destined for the drop and if it's Down then the first thing county officialdom needs to accept is that they are playing in the Tailteann Cup because that's where they belong.

McCartan returned to the helm late last year and he'll know by now – especially after training with 17 outfield players weekend – that there's no quick fix here.

It looks like things are going to get worse before they get better and he'll also know that the boys who turn out on Saturday – the lads who get over their calf strains or hamstring niggles and pull on the jersey – are the ones he can rely on going forward.

There are passionate and skilful coaches in Down and no shortage of eager youngsters but you can't rely on talent any more, you need systems to bring players through.

Down have to find a new way and I hope they do because it would be nice to see Seamie's flag out again.

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I WAS making my dinner in the ground floor kitchen of a student house in Hull when I heard a roar from the third storey that rhymed with ‘clucking bell'.

I ran up four flights of stairs to see what all the commotion was about and burst into my friend's room (he had a portable TV) just in time to catch the fifth repeat of what we have come to know as ‘The Ball of the Century'.

A rosy-faced, blond-haired Australian leg-spinner called Shane Warne (who took one wicket for 150 runs on his debut) had just bowled former England captain Mike Gatting with an incredible ball, his first in Ashes cricket and the best he bowled in his long career. Talk about grabbing your opportunity!

When the ball left his hand it drifted through the air from left to right but when it hit the pitch it ripped back viciously in the other direction, fizzed past Gatting's bat and hitting his off stump.

Yeah, clucking bell.

Gatting didn't know what had happened, the crowd was stunned and the commentators couldn't find words to describe it. It was all new to everyone. I'm proud to say that I got to watch Warne play a dozen years after his Ball of the Century in the Ashes Test at Old Trafford in 2005.

By that stage he was in the twilight of his career but until his retirement he remained a quality performer in one of the greatest sides ever to take the field because of his love of a contest, his dedication and his sheer love for the game.

A genuine star, a tireless competitor and brilliant innovator who reinvented the game, from what I've read he was a good guy as well. RIP Warnie.

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GAA Football