Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down v Limerick (Saturday, Pairc Esler, 6pm)
THERE is something eerily familiar about the mood music heading into Down’s second National League outing this weekend.
Go back to this time 12 months ago and, in Conor Laverty’s first year at the helm, the Mournemen laid down a marker in the Dr McKenna Cup before heading into Division Three among the favourites for promotion.
From the chaos of 2022, the change in tone was remarkable. Down went to Tipperary on the opening weekend and claimed both points. With Antrim up next in Newry, and the Saffrons coming off the disappointment of home defeat to Offaly, the Mourne bandwagon was expected to pick up pace.
The bookies gave Andy McEntee’s men little chance of upsetting the applecart and, as 5,000 thronged through the gate to embrace the mood of optimism around Pairc Esler that Saturday night, a mood of expectation awaited the players running out onto the field.
And then Antrim largely outplayed Down as a hell-for-leather encounter opened up, two goals from Aghagallon’s towering Ruairi McCann leaving the Saffrons five ahead with five minutes to go.
How they managed to lose the game from there or, rather, how Laverty’s men managed to win it, remains a head-scratcher a year down the line, Conor Poland’s goal igniting a late charge as the Mournemen surged across the line.
Last weekend Down went to Wicklow and came away with a relatively straightforward victory in the end. Ahead of their first home game of the campaign, they are a lot of people’s picks for promotion once more.
Saturday night’s opponents, Limerick, fell to home defeat against Antrim on the opening weekend, and travel to Newry as 15/2 outsiders. This is the same Limerick that played in Division Two last year.
Down don’t need to look too far for a cautionary tale, though clearly the Treaty are on something of a slippery slope after the relative highs of Billy Lee’s time in charge.
Just two years ago they came up to Corrigan Park and blew holes in Enda McGinley’s Antrim, the excellent Cian Sheehan and Peter Nash helping Limerick to an early lead, their pace and power proving too much for the shell-shocked Saffrons.
If that same Limerick side was Newry-bound on Saturday, the odds would not be so wide. But they returned to the third tier without a whimper, with Lee’s replacement - Ray Dempsey - lasting just five months.
Now it is the job of Jimmy Lee to try and get the show back on the road, yet he must do so without 17 of last year’s panel, including Sheehan and Brian Fanning, both on their travels, while Donal O’Sullivan has retired.
Down, meanwhile, have learned lessons. The McKenna Cup wasn’t approached with the same urgency, the Mournemen ensuring they are equipped to play the long game as promotion remains paramount after last year’s near miss.
Laverty has mixed up his starting team from the win over Wicklow, with Conor Francis coming in for Paddy McCarthy and Finn McElroy reverting to corner-back, while the returning Niall McParland is named at midfield in place of Jonny Flynn.
Injury forced James Guinness off before half-time last week, and he remains sidelined, with Rory Mason joining Loughinisland club-mate Oisin Savage in the forward division.
Getting maximum points from their three home games looks a must if Down are to stand any chance of meeting their objective. Saturday can see the Mournemen chalk one off.