Slow start won't do for Down as crossroads clash with Westmeath awaits

Andrew Gilmore came off the bench to help spark Down into life against Fermanagh last weekend. Picture by Philip Walsh
Andrew Gilmore came off the bench to help spark Down into life against Fermanagh last weekend. Picture by Philip Walsh

Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down v Westmeath (tonight, Pairc Esler, 6pm)

IT feels like Down’s League campaign stands at a crossroads heading to Pairc Esler tonight.

Last weekend’s defeat to Fermanagh was a gut punch, Sean Quigley’s last-gasp goal sucking the air from early season momentum and leaving the Mournemen with much to contemplate on the long trip home from Ederney.

The knock-on effect is an upping of the stakes against fellow promotion hopefuls Westmeath in Newry. Lose again and Down have virtually no margin for error in their bid to escape Division Three, especially considering the following weekend brings a trip to table-topping Cavan.

The pressure, therefore, is cranked up a notch on Down tonight. From the elation of their smash-and-grab win over Antrim a fortnight earlier, how will Conor Laverty’s men react to leaving the Erne County empty-handed after a helter-skelter second half?

For all the doggedness and determination to drag themselves back into games, there must be concern at how much Down are leaving themselves to do.

A slow start saw Antrim seize the initiative in Newry and when the Saffrons moved into a five point lead with five minutes remaining, there looked to be no way back until Down somehow pulled it from the fire at the death.

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A decent wind played a part as Fermanagh took a six point lead into the break at St Joseph’s Park, a bit more energy and ambition helping the Ernemen get on top.

With their running game running aground too often in the opening 35, goals dragged Down back into it, even putting them a point ahead as the finishing line loomed – but this time the rub of the green was with Fermanagh as Quigley palmed home the winning score.

Laverty comes from a culture in Kilcoo where nothing is ever lost but, bedding in a new system and new personnel, it is unsustainable to always have a cause to chase.

And, just as Antrim’s runners from deep caused Down serious bother, the Ernemen adopted a similar approach. Joseph Finnegan, Conor Stewart and Peter Healy all found space easy to come by at Pairc Esler, while the pace and penetration of Ultan Kelm, Josh Largo-Ellis and Ryan Lyons did so much damage last weekend.

That won’t have gone unnoticed by Westmeath boss Dessie Dolan.

That middle sector, where Down have found themselves too easily overrun, will be critical again tonight. Injury forced Owen McCabe off early against Fermanagh while experienced trio Niall Donnelly, Niall McParland and Conor Poland were withdrawn at half-time.

The introduction of Shay Millar, Conor McCrickard and Anthony Morgan brought a bit more spark as the Mournemen started picking up breaks and putting the Ernemen on the back foot.

The Tailteann Cup champions - already guaranteed their place in this year’s All-Ireland Championship - have built into this campaign after that chastening home defeat to Cavan but, like Laverty, Dolan is still trying to iron out some kinks as the year progresses.

An emphatic victory over struggling Longford steadied the ship, but the Lake County were flattered by the six point gap against Offaly in Mullingar, with the introduction of veteran Kieran Martin turning the game in their favour down the straight.

Both counties know how significant victory would be to their promotion bids tonight, but Down must use the energy from the stands to force the issue from the off.

Ryan McEvoy’s buccaneering runs from deep have provided the impetus for so many attacks thus far, while Liam Kerr has the ability to burn any defence if afforded space. Therein lies part of the problem though as, with clogged defences designed to stifle Down’s running game, a bit more imagination and variety is required.

That’s why the absence of Andrew Gilmore from the starting 15 in Ederney was something of a surprise. With injury cruelly curtailing Barry O’Hagan’s season, and Pat Havern struggling to get any change from Lee Cullen, the St John’s man provided the creative spark as Down battled back after being brought off the bench. He has been named to start tonight.

When Laverty’s men click they can look irresistible, with goals always on the agenda - but they must find a way to keep the door shut at the other end if their promotion hopes are to remain intact. If they do, Down can edge to a crucial two points.

Down: N Kane; C Fitzpatrick, R McEvoy, P Laverty; R Magill, G Collins, P Branagan; A Morgan, O Murdock; C Doherty, L Kerr, E Brown; A Gilmore, P Havern, S Millar