THE loss of Barry O’Hagan is a major blow to Down’s ambitions – but there is still enough firepower to keep the Mourne momentum going, according to former county forward John Clarke.
Clonduff ace O’Hagan is ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury in the first half of Saturday’s dramatic late victory over Ulster rivals Antrim at Pairc Esler.
It was a shame for O’Hagan after such a strong start to the year and, as one of the more experienced members of Conor Laverty’s panel, his leadership and his dynamism will be missed.
But, with Pat Havern enjoying a flying start to the year, Eamon Brown coming off the bench to good effect on Saturday, Andrew Gilmore bagging a goal against the Saffrons, and a possible return to the fold for Kilcoo’s Johnston brothers towards the end of the League, Clarke is hopeful that Down can cope with O’Hagan’s absence.
“It’s a big loss because Barry’s one of the more experienced boys about the panel at the minute, and he has been leading by example. At times when Down were struggling over the past couple of seasons, he was one of the leading lights.
“He will have to get over this and bounce back, and the team are going to have to react to his loss. It’s going to be challenging but hopefully they can overcome it.
“Down are getting scores from other areas too at the minute, and there is forward talent there. Andrew Gilmore lives across the road from me, I played a couple of years with him at St John’s, and I knew right away he was going to play for Down. He’s a quality player, and so dedicated with it.
“Pat Havern has been going well at the start of the year too, then there’s boys who maybe haven’t a whole lot of experience who will get game-time over the next couple of weeks.
“Now they have the opportunity to stake their claim.”
And while a designated captain has yet to be named, it was young guns Ryan McEvoy (22) and Odhran Murdock (20) who stepped up and dragged Down back into Saturday’s game when all looked lost, offering encouragement for years to come.
“Ryan McEvoy shows great leadership – Down have been crying out for a full-back like him for years,” added Clarke, whose brother Marty is part of Laverty’s management team.
“I know he can play midfield too, but he really shows that leadership and that drive in a position where Down have struggled for so long.
“Odhran Murdock has been one of the standout performers so far this year, he has all the attributes to go a long way – I would see him a bit like a young Michael Murphy in some ways, with a similar kind of stature and skill. He has it all.
“I’m sure Conor will be trying to build the team around those two lads over the next couple of years.”
For all those positive notes, however, there were areas of concern arising from the weekend’s late, late show in Newry.
The Saffrons found it far too easy to get scores at times, with both their goals a result of lapses in concentration, while Down were also guilty of overplaying as they ran into traffic time and again.
But, having trailed by five points with five minutes to go, the Mournemen managed to pull it from the fire. As other challenges arise along the road, Clarke believes that experience – despite the below-par performance – could prove a major moment for this emerging group.
“In previous years Down teams would’ve been gone and their heads would’ve dropped, but it’s obviously something that’s been instilled with the new set-up that you keep going until the very end.
“It probably was a reality check as well, but it’s good to have the buzz back. It’s been a while since people have been talking about Down and looking to go to games.
“The Down public are football-mad and, if the team is going well, they will get on board and back it. Winning helps, but there’s definitely been a renewed optimism since the start of the year.
“If Down can go on and get out of Division Three, then that momentum can carry on into Championship.”