DOWN will be without one of their most experienced servants next year, following Paul Sheehan’s decision to call time on his inter-county career.
The 33-year-old - who transferred from Newry Shamrocks to Ballycran earlier this year having moved to the Ards peninsula in 2020 - has been a stalwart of the red and black for over a decade, but has opted to step away in 2024.
“Unfortunately Paul has decided to call it a day,” said Down boss Ronan Sheehan, uncle of the former county sharp-shooter, “but I don’t think he owes Down hurling too much, given his service over the years.
“He’s been a brilliant player for us.”
Also expected to be unavailable are Ryan McCusker, who leaves for Australia next month, while Jordan Doran and Stuart Martin are already Down Under.
“We don’t expect to have them back,” said Sheehan, “but things can change.”
On the plus side, however, Sheehan is boosted by the return of influential midfielder Donal Hughes from his travels, while veteran campaigner Stephen Keith and Matt Conlan have committed for another year.
And there is a return to the fold for Ballygalget forward Danny Toner after an injury-hit few years, as Sheehan prepares for the start of the Conor McGurk – and a quarter-final date with either Monaghan or Louth on January 6 – before the National League gets under way in early February.
The Ardsmen managed to retain their Division 2A and Joe McDonagh Cup status, despite a tough campaign that saw Sheehan’s squad beset by injury and unavailability.
For example Portaferry’s Sands brothers, Eoghan and Daithi, played no part until later in the 2023 campaign, but will be raring to go in the new year as Down bid to kick on in Sheehan’s sixth season at the helm.
“Overall, I would argue we’re probably in a lot better health this year - even in terms of injuries, we seem to be okay at the moment,” he said.
“There’s a bit of quiet confidence again with the squad. Last year was tough, but it’s probably a sign of how far we’ve come that staying in 2A and maintaining our McDonagh Cup status is seen as a tough year.
“Seven or eight years ago a Down team would’ve grabbed your hand off to have that kind of a year. The lads feel last year was a disappointing one, and it’s one they want to put right.
“It’s a big positive they’re keen to be the best versions of themselves.”
As he has done most years, Sheehan has shaken up his management team, retaining the services of Cork legend Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Barry Mullane, and adding former Tipperary underage star Trevor Fletcher, who led Shinrone to a first Offaly senior championship in 2022.
“Trevor is a new voice but, more importantly, he’s an excellent coach in his own right.
“Diarmuid is very much a defensive coach, whereas Trevor’s background is as a forward – he was a very good forward himself, and I think you’ll see some of that in our play this year.”
And, despite some difficult days during the League and McDonagh Cup, Sheehan’s decision to stay on was taken in consultation with the Down players.
Every year he evaluates his own situation, but insists the moment it is felt he didn’t “add value” to the set-up will be the day he walks away.
“Unless you’re in one of these roles, you don’t realise how much time it takes up and how much commitment it requires,” said the Newry Shamrocks clubman.
“When I spoke to the boys, the critical point was whether they felt I still had something to offer them? If we did a few things slightly differently, did they feel we could push on again?
“In 12 months’ time I’ll have the same conversation with the guys. Ultimately, players only have a very small window of opportunity to make the most of their careers, so if they felt someone was hanging around and damaging their ambitions, or their opportunities, then it would be time for me to get out of town.
“This is all about Down hurling for me. My motivation is trying to add value, with the aim that Down hurling improves as a result. That’s the only thing that matters at the end of it all.”