Neil Loughran: Mourne identity changing as lost connection being restored

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Young Down supporters enjoying the action at Pairc Esler on Saturday night as the Mournemen came back from seven points behind to defeat Westmeath. Picture by Philip Walsh
Young Down supporters enjoying the action at Pairc Esler on Saturday night as the Mournemen came back from seven points behind to defeat Westmeath. Picture by Philip Walsh Young Down supporters enjoying the action at Pairc Esler on Saturday night as the Mournemen came back from seven points behind to defeat Westmeath. Picture by Philip Walsh

PHOTOGRAPHER Brendan Monaghan posted a picture on his Facebook page last year that said more than words ever could about exactly where Down’s relationship with the county’s senior footballers stood.

A beautiful spring Sunday afternoon, March 27, Monaghan snapped the stand at Pairc Esler 10 minutes before the start of Down’s final National League game against Clare. You didn’t need to zoom in too hard to start taking a head count, with less than 100 people spread out across the red seats in drips and drabs.

It was a grim sight, but not a surprising one. After all, the Mournemen were already relegated after a miserable Division Two campaign. Colm Collins’s men were safe, with no dog in the promotion scrap up above.

The Banner support wisely opted to spare themselves the almost 400 mile round trip for a game as meaningless as a Matt Hancock promise. For what it’s worth, Clare won by eight points.

However, a real sign of the widening disconnect came when fellow strugglers Offaly travelled to Newry a fortnight earlier, with both still harbouring hopes of saving their skins.

Saturday nights are when Pairc Esler comes alive, we’re told, with Down supporters priding themselves on bringing that atmosphere under the lights. On this particular Saturday, when their team needed them most, there was more life in the cemetery across the road.

“This rain isn’t going to help matters,” said one of the men at the gate half an hour before the 5pm throw-in, “and then the rugby’s coming on as well.”

Driving down diagonally in sodden sheets, the weather was horrendous. And Ireland were indeed about to hand England their backsides at Twickenham, that game starting at 4.45pm.

But it was lashing half an hour away in Armagh as well. The rugby was still on too when the Orchard got under way against Kildare at 6pm – plus that game was being shown live on the BBC iPlayer.

Yet the Athletic Grounds was bunged, as it always is.

Fortunes dip and swerve through the decades but, during recent times, it is the Mournemen who have had to cast a rueful glance as their neighbours to the west live it up at football’s top table, their fanatical following enjoying the journey from Tuam to Tralee and everywhere in between.

While Armagh were sweeping Kildare aside, a Niall Kane 45 edged Down three points ahead with five minutes to play - a lifeline at last.

Angst, though, was never too far away. The second Offaly cut the gap again, a sense of impending doom swept through the stand and out onto the field. Mistakes duly came from a side struggling for confidence, and the Faithful made them pay to all but seal Down’s fate. As lows go, it was right up there.

What a difference a year makes – and it hasn’t been by accident.

Conor Laverty and his management team had a list of key objectives when they came in, with one of those to bring the Down public back on board. Coming from a relatively low base, there was an opportunity to build from the bottom.

While whispers went around the county of the work being done to whip the panel into shape, excitement grew ahead of the Dr McKenna Cup, with promotion talk already building before a ball had been kicked.

Yet it is also worth remembering that the McKenna Cup win over Monaghan on January 4 was Down’s first since beating Laois in a Division Two relegation play-off 18 months earlier. Twelve games had passed in the time between, with only a draw in Meath to show for it.

Slowly but surely, though, things are changing - on the field and off it. Before the first home League game against Antrim, it was interesting to observe the amount of families making their way through the gate.

At half-time youngsters flooded the field and kicked about at either end, with nobody barking down the PA for them to get off.

And when the Mournemen needed them, trailing the Saffrons by five with five minutes to go, they were there – Conor Poland’s goal offering renewed hope, a roar from the stand heralding the commencement of the most unlikely of comebacks.

That kind of energy spreads. When Down found themselves seven behind 10 minutes into the second half of last Saturday night’s crucial clash with Westmeath, the faith was never lost. Again a goal, this time Odhran Murdock’s penalty, sparked the revival.

Down didn’t play great, far from it, but twice they dug in and dragged something from the fire. When it comes to building a connection and bringing people with you, that kind of attitude goes a long way.

Young boys and girls made their way onto the field to celebrate as soon as David Gough’s whistle sounded, flocking around their heroes, hunting autographs, photos, gloves, with the players clearly in no hurry to split the scene.

“It’s something we've had to lean on and I suppose it’s a long time since we heard the crowd in Newry in a night game,” said Down coach Marty Clarke afterwards.

“Derry in the McKenna Cup was a big game, and in the Antrim game they helped us over the line, and there again tonight and then after the game having fans on the pitch... this group is aware of that responsibility as well. 

“It’s just great to see this place have a nice energy about it again.”

Perhaps early season optimism created a false sense of just how far Down have come in a relatively short time, but the investment is there when it hasn’t always been.

Given where they were not so long ago, it feels a long long way from Clare to here.