Ardsmen must Down Royals to end impressive year on a high
Joe McDonagh Cup: Down v Meath (today, Ballycran, 1pm)
AND so, after everything – the highs, the lows and all that has gone between – it comes down to this. Down’s year to date can only be viewed as a major success, but the outcome of this afternoon’s do-or-die clash in Ballycran will have a huge bearing on how 2022 is reflected upon once the dust has settled.
Just seven weeks ago the Ardsmen travelled to Semple Stadium, hoping to defy the odds by sealing a spot among hurling’s elite in the top tier of the National League.
Despite falling short against Westmeath in Thurles, the spring brought some unforgettable days - including a two point comeback win over the Lake County in Mullingar - as they surged to the summit of Division 2A.
Victory in Kerry, another monkey off their back, got Down off to the perfect start in the Joe McDonagh too, but subsequent defeats against Antrim, Offaly and Carlow have left them fighting for their lives today – albeit with their fate very much in their own hands
Win or draw against a Meath side who have shipped four heavy defeats from four games thus far, and Joe McDonagh Cup status is secured for a third year. With a better scoring difference by 67 points, the second from bottom Ardsmen should have nothing to fear running out at McKenna Park.
The reality, though, is that despite a disappointing campaign, the Royals have one last crack at redemption – a final opportunity to finish the season on a high and send Down into the summer months wondering what the hell just happened.
Head to head results determine who drops back to Christy Ring level, so a win by any means necessary would keep Meath up. For Down forward Ryan McCusker, that simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
“Meath are fighting for their lives as well, and ultimately we don’t want to be relegated to Christy Ring – it would be a drop in standard and, after our League performance, it would be a disaster,” said the 26-year-old Ballela ace, one of the county’s top performers this year.
“Obviously everybody was disappointed after the Carlow game; we started slow and in the end we regretted it. But this is our second year in the Joe McDonagh, if we can stay up then you want to try and push on again next year - those matches we lost by four or five points this year we could hopefully rectify with that Championship experience under our belts.
“Personally, it’s not really an option going down. This is a must-win game.”
McCusker’s commitment to the cause exemplifies just why Down’s fortunes have surged in recent years under boss Ronan Sheehan.
A plumber by trade, work took him to Sligo for the majority of Down’s National League campaign. Yet so determined was McCusker to retain his hard-earned starting spot that he made the 400-mile round trip twice a week for training, driving over to Belfast before making the return journey in the early hours of the following morning.
“Ah look, it can be difficult at times. I work a lot down south and in Donegal, then I was in Sligo… you just have to be prepared, have your lunches and dinners ready to go, the kitbag packed a day or two in advance, all that helps.
“It’s manageable. If you didn’t enjoy it you wouldn’t be at it. I enjoy the hurling and the craic with the boys, there’s good camaraderie and a sense that we’re going somewhere, so that keeps you going.”
Down’s progress so far demands that they finish the job today but, with one last hurdle to clear, nothing can be left to chance. The experienced Conor Woods could return to play some part, despite fracturing a thumb against Offaly three weeks ago, while Jordan Doran and Barry Trainor are also in contention to start.
Down have held the Indian sign over Meath in recent years, and they have to be fancied to keep that run going and end an impressive year on a high.