Hurling and camogie

Making hurling a priority again in Down won't be easy insists boss Marty Mallon

Portaferry's Eoghan Sands is back for Down, who are under management new in 2017

DOWN’S new hurling manager Marty Mallon says he wants to make playing the game a priority in the lives of its county hurlers again.

Mallon also feels the time is ripe for local hurling people to take charge of the Ards men. Mallon, Paul Coulter and Gary Savage were appointed successors to outgoing manager and Belfast man Mickey Johnston, who applauded the Down county board for looking inside the county for its next managerial team.

“We’d taken the U21s last year and I think the players wanted local lads to take the job on and give it a lash,” Mallon said.

“We’ve tried several managers from Antrim but that model is gone; the Sean McGuinness model is gone. So far, the players have bought into it and we’ve no complaints.”

Mallon won three Ulster titles during Down’s halcyon days of the 1990s, but recognises a lot has changed since he wore the famous red-and-black.

“Hurling is not in a good place in Down at the minute,” said the Portaferry man.

“The clubs are struggling in the Antrim league. I don’t know why. Maybe players nowadays aren’t totally committed to it. Lifestyles have changed, social lives have changed. Hurling is no longer a priority in people’s lives. The way I would have seen hurling, it was a priority in my life. Nowadays that’s not the case for a lot of players.

“It’s not the way it used to be when there was nothing else in players’ minds only hurling. That’s the changes I see. You’re almost competing for players [to play for the county].”

Mallon, who captained the Down team to their last provincial success in 1997, has ignored the sceptics and insisted it was an easy decision to get involved.

“People have said to us: ‘You’re mad. What are you taking that over for?’," he added.

“If we don’t take it on, we can live in the 90s all our lives. We can go to the pub on Saturday night and talk about how good we were. But that’s not going to cure the problem down here. If it’s not going to work with local lads [in charge] then it’s not going to work at all.

Mallon added: “I don’t think there is any big ‘Wow’ factor about taking it on. The way I see it, you’re steeped in it. It’s hard to let go of it.

“I’m taking the Portaferry minors as well. I don’t even see myself as the manager - it’s a management team. We took the U21s last year, the county board were pleased with the way we performed, so we said we’d give it a go for a year to see how it goes.”

Down’s biggest regret of 2016 was narrowly missing out on promotion from NHL Division 2B, while later in the year they were desperately unlucky to lose an enthralling Christy Ring semi-final to arch-rivals Antrim.

“We’re just trying to get back to basics - no-nonsense training, no more cones all over the place, just basic tackling and working and getting everybody pulling together. It’s all about the players.

“There’s nothing fancy, we’re just knocking the s**t out of them. That’s the bottom line. It’s going to be basic stuff. We just want to put a bit of pride back into the place. We’ve lost all sense of Down being hard to beat in recent years.

“We want to get away from the short passing and short puck-outs. We’re not Cork, we’re not Clare. We’re not coming up with any brainwaves; we’re not going to win All-Irelands, we mighn’t even compete in the Christy Ring. But we will try and raise the standard and bring a wee bit of passion back to it and try and get the game moving again.”

Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnston and veteran defender Fintan Conway have stepped away from the county set-up ahead of the new season while Mallon was desperately disappointed to lose Donal Hughes of Bredagh to Eamonn Burns’ football panel.

“We’ve lost a few players [from last year]. One of the players we’d love to have had was Donal Hughes. He’s a terrific hurler. But he’s made the cut with the footballers and, by all accounts, he made it easy enough," he said.

“Fintan Conway has retired. Gareth Johnston has stepped away from it. But we’re happy with what we have. We’ve a good bunch of young lads, we’ll get the team spirit built up and you don’t know what could happen.

“Eoghan Sands of Portaferry is back and he will boost us. Christopher Egan of Ballycran is another fine player, Caolan Taggart, John McManus and Conor O’Neill - they’re all showing great commitment.”

Experienced hurler and a player for all seasons and positions, Conor O’Prey, has committed to another year with Down despite moving to Dublin.

“Conor O’Prey is still going with us. He’s talking about training with Kilmacud Crokes and we’re happy enough with that,” he said.

Down face familiar opposition in Divison 2B this year and will have to travel to Meath and Wicklow: “A lot of our players are 22 or 23. It’s these players that need to bite the bullet now," Mallon said. 

"That group won an Ulster minor title so they need to push on because they are the leaders of the team now. For us, it’s all about the players.”

Last season, the squad trained at Queen’s but the new management team felt it was important for them to train on their home patch: “We’ve decided to train on the peninsula. We’ll use the three clubs - Portaferry, Ballygalget and Ballycran - on Sundays," he said.

“We also train at Red High School in Downpatrick, where there are fabulous facilities. We feel the pool of players is decent. In the past, I don’t think everyone has really thrown their weight behind the league, so hopefully we can get a bit of a run going.”

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Hurling and camogie