Down dreaming again but the real tests begin with trip to Tipp
OVER the years, as attendances dwindled, is was noticeable that the atmosphere at Pairc Esler nose-dived from anger to frustration and then to a quiet, almost resigned acceptance of defeat.
Die-hards kept the Down flame alive through thick and thin: Emmett Haughian ever-present in the stand, Sean Og at the gate and on the touchline, Seamus McClean advertising the supporters’ bus to away matches…
Occasional flashes of the county’s old self came and went: 2010 when James McCartan propelled Down to within a whisker of the Sam Maguire, 2017 when the late Eamonn Burns’s side reached the Ulster final. Somehow you never had the feeling that Down was permanently back on its feet.
There was stability under Paddy Tally but not enough excitement. Tally, an outsider whose coaching credentials are beyond question, was a pragmatic realist.
He could see where Down was at but the natives didn’t have the patience for his methods and, after the Tyrone man was eased out of office, the long drawn will-he/won’t-he saga with Jim McGuinness began.
In the end, despite rumours of budgets, gardeners and babysitters, McGuinness didn’t bite and McCartan’s return didn’t work out last year.
Meanwhile, throughout those many forgettable years for the county team, something special took shape out in the Mournes.
Kilcoo set new standards, only the best would do and their club rose and rose to become as good as any in this country. They dominated Down, then Ulster and then Ireland.
Down didn’t win a game last year. Relegated to Division Three, they were no-hopers in Ulster and alsorans in the Tailteann Cup and yet their county champions were the best club in the country?
An embarrassment on the one hand, the Magpies’ success was a beacon of hope on the other.
For Down to turn the long-awaited corner they had to get plugged into Kilcoo’s method and that happened when Conor Laverty, the architect of so many of the Magpies’ great days, reached the stage where he could take on the post of senior manager.
Laverty isn’t a miracle worker. There is no secret sauce but he is a charismatic motivator, an organiser and a football man through-and-through and if he gets the best players in the county together, gets them fit, makes them a gameplan and gets them to understand it and to play within it then he’s got a chance.
It’s early days, but the mood has changed at Pairc Esler and a blind man could see the improvement in Down during the Dr McKenna Cup. There was an aura of confidence about them that hadn’t been seen for some time, there was purpose there, the players looked fitter, the tackling was edgier, the defensive shape was better.
And the people started to come back.
“It’s great to see the crowd out, it gives you a lift,” said Down defender Niall McParland after Down had beaten Donegal.
“It’s the middle of January, it’s freezing cold and the stand is full…
“There’s just a great pull this year. Everybody wants to play and the best way to do that is to put yourself forward. If everybody does that then the group is going to be tight and it will be intense and that is showing so far.
“The training games have been tough, they definitely have. It’s been a step-up, it’s been good quality and we’ve done plenty of hard work and I think you can see that in the legs.
“We’re going well but we’ll not get carried away, definitely not.”
Glenn clubman McParland was an ever-present throughout this month’s promising McKenna Cup campaign. Down beat Division One teams in Monaghan and Donegal (albeit neither were at full-strength) and lost a semi-final on penalties to a strong Derry side that went on to win the competition.
“It was a good start but it was just a pre-season tournament,” said McParland.
“It’s nice to get going at the start of the season and we’re looking good so far but we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves. The McKenna Cup is for getting boys out – we used a lot of players and that’s exactly what it’s for, it’s for getting boys out on the pitch and getting them playing with each other and then fine-tuning for later on down the line.”
McParland missed three years’ of county football while teaching in Doha in the Middle East. He returned home last year and went straight back in McCartan’s team for the ill-fated Division Two campaign.
Along with Gerard Collins and Niall Donnelly, his former Hogan Cup-winning team-mate at St Colman’s College he is one of the more experienced campaigners in the squad now.
“When somebody says: ‘The older lads’ everybody keeps turning round and looking at me now,” he says with a chuckle.
“They used to look at Kevin McKernan but he’s left now unfortunately so I’m getting it.
“Niall (Donnelly) missed a couple of years’ there through injuries and different things but it’s good to have him back now and Caolan Mooney is out with the knee injury at the minute but he’ll be back in.
“There are lads in the squad who have played for Down for five or six years so there is experience there but it’s good to have the injection of new names and new faces. It pushes us all on and I hope it will be difficult to pick a team come the Championship.”
Down’s opponents in the Ulster Championship are Donegal. The same Donegal that inflicted humiliating defeats on Down in 2021 (by 16 points) and 13 points in 2018 – both dark days for the proud Mourne county.
Down beat the Tir Chonaill men impressively in their second game this year but that result will have no bearing on the return game in mid-May.
“I don’t think Donegal will be too worried about losing to us in the McKenna Cup,” said McParland.
“If you line up the teams come May, I think they’ll be nothing like they were in January. We might be a week or two ahead of where they are but Donegal are a very experienced team.”
If you went on early-season form, you might take a punt on Down and Donegal both being in Division Two next year by the time they meet in May.
The Down management team of Laverty, assistant-manager Marty Clarke and selectors Declan Morgan and Mickey Donnelly have worked their players hard in pre-season. Their fitness levels were very impressive throughout the McKenna Cup campaign and, if they can maintain that workrate and form they will surely force their way into the promotion shake-up.
“We had a head-start this season compared to last year in terms of our start time,” said McParland.
“Having a couple of weeks’ extra gets the miles into the legs and then you can start focussing on other things like tackling and tactics and shape. When you’re a wee bit further down the line with your fitness you can do that and it definitely does help.
“Training has been brilliant, it’s been intense and you can see the commitment from the boys all across the county this year. There are good footballers in Down and there always has been, our club scene is very strong and our club games are brilliant so once you bring them all together and you get them on the pitch you’re bound to see an improvement and a step forward.”
Down began the National League tomorrow with a trip to Tipp. The home side were promoted from Division Four last year and are without their talismanic forward Michael Quinlivan.
They have been slow starters in the League in recent years’ but they’ll be a tough nut to crack at their iconic Thurles home.
“Our focus has been on Tipperary,” said McParland.
“We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves – we’ll not be thinking of the fifth, sixth or seventh game. We’re just thinking: ‘First game of the League’ and if we can get over that it keeps us in the running and then it’s about the next step, next step, next step…
“You have 10 games guaranteed in your season and most of them are in the League. When you look back on your season, you look at how you performed in the League because the Championship can be over very quickly depending how draws go and how it works out.
“So the League is very important for most teams, I don’t think you’d get any team that wasn’t up and at it and at full-tilt come League time so it is super-important.
“At the minute we’re focussing about Tipperary and then, after that, we’ll focus on the next step.”
We haven’t even started the League yet and Peter Canavan – as shrewd a judge of teams and players as there is – has spoken of Down as Ulster Championship dark horses this year.
Is that a little premature? Possibly but if Division Three goes well for them, the clamour will only grow louder and a Down side with momentum behind it will give any county trouble.
A transformation that seemed lightyears away six months’ ago could be taking shape.
“There’s no magic button and if there was everyone would be after it,” said McParland.
“Conor brings intensity. Kilcoo have been there and done that and we’ve been chasing them, everybody’s been chasing them in Down for the last 10 or 11 years.
“So if somebody from Kilcoo says something, it makes a bit of sense to listen, The quality Conor brings and the knowledge he has from being about the game for so long is valuable to us and it seems to be working so far.”
Down dream again…
THE story so far
IT was ‘only’ the McKenna Cup but Down haven’t come out of the McKenna Cup with a feel-good factor like this since… When was the last time?
Their opener was away to Monaghan in Castleblayney and goals from Ulster University team-mates Andrew Gilmore and Odhran Murdock saw the Mournemen to a four-point win.
Donegal arrived in Newry for Down’s first home game of the year and an early goal from the pacey Liam Kerr gave Down the platform to weather a Donegal fightback and kick-on to victory in the second half.
Topping their section meant Down progressed to a valuable run-out against Derry at the semi-final stage. Niall Donnelly scored two goals, Ceilum Doherty bagged another but the gutsy Oak Leafers dug in and forced a penalty shoot-out which they won 3-2.
But, all-in-all, the pre-season tournament went to plan for Conor Laverty who ran the rule over a batch of emerging players and got to work on system and shape while getting minutes and miles into his established players’ legs.
Long-serving stalwarts Darren O‘Hagan and Kevin McKernan both stepped away after years’ of yeoman service to their county. Caolan Mooney is recovering from a knee injury and Gerard Collins was honeymooning.
Niall Kane didn’t feature in goal so Glenn clubman John O’Hare was the custodian and he has the chance to nail-down his place in the first two games of the League. In front of him, Kilcoo’s Ryan McEvoy has slotted in as full-back and with experienced McParland holding the centre, the wing-backs are given licence to go on the attack – Patrick Branagan and Bredagh’s Conor Francis both showed impressive form.
Niall Donnelly is a physical, ball-winning presence in midfield who can take a score and the pace of Liam Kerr will cause defences problems this season.
Barry O’Hagan is a classy finisher and burly Saval clubman Pat Havern looked in terrific form at full-forward. He scored five points from play against Donegal and added three more versus Derry.
Down played 26 players against Monaghan and Donegal and 21 against the Oak Leafers
Of the new faces, Warrenpoint’s Donach McAleenan found his feet quickly at half forward, Michael Ireland, Rory Mason, Patrick Branagan, Danny and Ryan Magill all had their moments and Tom Close, Gilmore and Murdock continued to develop at inter-county level.
So far so good but the real tests begin tomorrow.