'Maybe I was being too safe and wasn’t going for it': Down's Rory Mason grabbing second chance with both hands

Rory Mason was exceptional in Down's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan last Saturday. Picture by Louis McNally
Rory Mason was exceptional in Down's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan last Saturday. Picture by Louis McNally Rory Mason was exceptional in Down's Tailteann Cup quarter-final victory over Cavan last Saturday. Picture by Louis McNally

RORY Mason was only too glad to be back playing football when he ran out for Loughinisland’s clash with Clonduff a fortnight ago.

The spring months had been frustrating for a man first brought into the county set-up by Paddy Tally back in 2019. As Conor Laverty poked and prodded at his developing Down side during the League, Mason was afforded little opportunity to show what he could do.

A 25 minute cameo at the end of the comeback victory over Westmeath showed Mason’s range of passing could offer something a bit different, before the Division Three campaign finished out with half an hour against Longford and a first start of the campaign as Down breezed beyond Offaly in Tullamore.

But when the Ulster Championship rolled around, nothing – not a minute as Donegal were dispatched in Newry, nor when Down toiled in the Clones rain against neighbours Armagh.

After the Orchard defeat, Mason told Laverty he wanted to go back and get some game-time with Loughinisland, and would be opting off the panel. No cross words, no animosity. The Kilcoo man understands the plight of the inbetweener better than most.

“I’ve been a player that’s started for Down, then I’ve been a player outside of the match-day squad,” Laverty told RTE at the weekend, “I always promised myself that whenever I was in that position that I would never try to do that to player.”

“Not getting football for two or three weeks is a very hard place to be, mentally even, so we’ve tried to spread the load in this last number of weeks.”

Therefore, from the beginning of May, Mason was an ever-present, shooting the lights out as Loughinisland gathered the momentum that sees them sit top of Down’s top flight 10 games in.

After the game in Hilltown on Thursday, June 8 the Down management decided enough was enough. Assistant manager Marty Clarke, who knows a thing or two about bringing the best from a cultured left boot, fired off a text, asking for a chat.

Teacher Mason was sitting at his desk in St Macartan’s PS, Loughinisland when the message landed. He had a fair idea what was coming.

“We had a chat, then I went back and talked to the club. They were very good, they knew I had unfinished business and let me go back... I’m really grateful for that,” said Mason.

“To be fair to Conor and Marty they gave me my chance. I thought ‘let’s give it a lash here and see what happens’.”

The following evening he was brought off the bench as Down laboured past the Midlanders, Mason bagging three points to help turn the tide late on. A week later, ahead of the massive quarter-final clash with Tailteann Cup favourites Cavan, he was a surprise replacement for Donagh McAleenan when the starting 15 was called out.

The 29-year-old carried his club form onto the county stage by turning in a man-of-the-match performance as the Mournemen advanced to Sunday’s semi-final with Laois at Croke Park, driving Down forward time and again, and firing over three points from play as well as a stunning outside-of-the-boot free from under the stand at Kingspan Breffni.

It was fitting that the loudest roar of the day from the travelling faithful came when Mason was replaced by Gerard Collins two minutes into added time – a hero’s reception for a man who, less than two weeks earlier, had been watching from the outside in.

“I just wanted to get back to my club and play a bit of football – it’s been a breath of fresh air, but I was only too happy to answer the call when it came.

“I’m not playing with any pressure after being out of the panel and coming back into it… you’re maybe playing off the cuff. I’m enjoying it.

“When I got my chance in the League, maybe I was being too safe and wasn’t going for it. Everybody in this squad is at the same level, it’s just who gets the call on that day and who takes it.

“There were no hard feelings when I stepped away, Conor was very good, he just said ‘yeah, away back and play for your club and see how you go’. To be fair he’s always said if boys are playing well on the club scene, they’ll get the call.

“It probably wasn’t an easy call for them boys after me stepping away, but it has worked out well.”

And while the Mason clan have a long association with Loughinisland, the same can also be said of the county – dad Brendan having starred for Down during the 1980s and early ’90s, granda Desmond wearing red and black in the ’50s, great grandfather Pat representing the county in the 1930s, while Rory’s sister Laura is a former vice-captain of the Down ladies’ side.

With that kind of lineage, bringing the Mason name to Croke Park on Sunday will mean that bit more.

“I’ve never played there before,” he smiles, “our club were close to it in 2016 when we were beat in the All-Ireland intermediate semi-final [by Mayo’s Hollymount Carramore], funnily enough at Breffni Park.

“It’s going to be fun playing at Croke Park. We’ll get our house in order and take it from there.”