Down through the years
THERE has always been something about Down. Well, maybe not always, but certainly since 1960, when they emerged as a major force for the first time, complete with a new, innovative approach to how Gaelic football should be played.
Their All-Ireland double in 1960-'61 identified that particular group as something special and, equally importantly, provided a legacy from which future generations could draw on for inspiration.
They wore white shorts back then but had changed to black by the time they won their third All-Ireland in 1968. Again, it was something unusual and while it didn't help kick a point from an awkward angle, it made a statement about individuality which got others looking at Down in a different way.
Down weren't around the top table for another 23 years but, when they returned in 1991, it was as if they not only owned the room but the entire castle. And, as if to prove their pedigree as footballing aristocrats -- albeit of a sporadic nature -- they won the All-Ireland again in 1994.
They didn't reach another All-Ireland semi-final until this year (nor have they won a single Ulster title in the interim) but despite being away for so long, they've managed to restart the swagger machine.
Armagh and Tyrone have both won All-Ireland titles while Cavan, Derry, Donegal and Fermanagh all reached semi-finals since Down were last there, but that's totally irrelevant in Mourne land these days. As far as Down are concerned, they're back in business and the rest of the country had better get used to it.
Kerry? No problem. Sure we've always beaten them. Playing at Croke Park? We love it; that's where we express ourselves best of all.
Down are brilliant at playing up their 100pc record from five All-Ireland final appearances, using it skilfully to imply that Croke Park makes them a better team. That ignores the fact that they've lost more All-Ireland semi-finals than won at Croke Park (five wins, seven defeats, one draw) and that Wexford beat them handsomely there in the 2008 qualifiers.
Still, this is Down, the masters at drawing from the inspirational deeds of the past. But then they have a colourful history since those hugely significant days in the second half of the 1950s, when some of the county's great visionaries decided it was time to do something about their status in Gaelic football. They were, after all, alongside Fermanagh and Donegal as the only Ulster counties not to have won a provincial title up to then. Much has changed since then.
In the autumn of 1957, a few months after losing to Donegal in the Ulster championship, Down footballers were surprised to receive a call from county secretary, Maurice Hayes. He visited their houses individually and told them he had a plan which, among other initiatives, included collective training.
Coming from a county that hadn't won a single provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland, they were quite sceptical but nonetheless intrigued by his positive prediction that things were about to change. He told them that if they bought into the plan, Down would win an All-Ireland inside five years.
Together with some others of similar ambition, including Barney Carr, who would also play a huge role in Down's emergence as a major force, Hayes had a vision for where Down should be headed.
It included bringing a modern approach to preparing the county team and building up a squad spirit which left the players in no doubt that playing for their county was an honour. Things changed slowly at first but as players discovered that the board were keeping their side of the deal, morale improved.
Post-training meals, proper medical treatment plus judicious intervention with employers when it came to requiring time off for football were all arranged and gradually the response from a happier group of players manifested itself on the pitch.
By as early as 1958, the improvement was obvious. Down reached their first Ulster final since 1942 and, while they lost to Derry, it was clear they were taking shape as a team with real potential. A year later, they were Ulster champions for the first time after beating Cavan -- the provincial specialists up to then -- by 15 points in the final. A more experienced Galway side beat Down in the All-Ireland semi-final but the 1957 plan for an All-Ireland inside five years remained on target. Down were on their way.
It remains the most revered decade in Down's history and since their latest surge towards All-Ireland glory coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1960 breakthrough, it's as if the gods have intervened to mark that success in a very special way. The 1960s were a period in which riches flowed in the form of three All-Ireland, six Ulster and three National League titles.
This was the decade of, among others, Sean O'Neill, Paddy Doherty, James and Dan McCartan, Kevin Mussen and Joe Lennon, the era when Down brought a whole new approach to football with their double All-Ireland success in 1960-'61.
They beat Kerry three times in the championship in the 1960s and established a reputation as a county that did things with swashbuckling style. It wasn't all class and finesse, however, as, according to opponents, they were also the masters of such black arts as off-the-ball dragging, body-checking opponents and fouling the ball-carrier way out from goal to give themselves a chance to reset their defence. Yellow cards for such offences weren't on the menu back then.
Sam Maguire's first border- crossing in 1960 is still recalled as one of the most special occasions in GAA history and by the time the cavalcade had reached Newry, there were more than 50,000 people there to meet their welcome visitor.
With a mixture of style, adventure and street wisdom, all underpinned by the high skill levels of so many players, Down were unquestioned market leaders in the early 1960s. They earned nationwide respect for their innovative approach to the game, even if there were also negative elements involved.
Still, it was a package that brought Down unprecedented success and while they were replaced as a superpower by Galway's three-in-a-row side in the middle of the decade, they won another All-Ireland title in 1968. Dan McCartan, Sean O'Neill, Joe Lennon and Paddy Doherty had all survived from 1960-'61, ensuring themselves of a place in Down history as the first men from the county to win three All-Ireland medals. It's an honour that still stands.
By the close of the decade, it was clear that Down would never again see themselves as support acts to football's elite. Now they were at the top table and determined to remain there.
In October 1968, as the Lord Mayor of Belfast held a civic reception to mark Down's All-Ireland success, a protest group, which included Ian Paisley's wife, demonstrated outside.
It seemed of no great consequence at the time but dark clouds were gathering over Northern Ireland, ones which would have a profound impact on the fortunes of its GAA teams.
Down had looked well placed to continue their successes and when they scored 4-15 against Derry in the 1971 Ulster final, it seemed they were about to book Sam Maguire for an early visit in the new decade. However, they lost the All-Ireland semi-final encounter to Galway and wouldn't win another Ulster title for seven years.
However, as the Troubles in Northern Ireland intensified throughout the 1970s, the decade was grim for Ulster football with only Armagh reaching the All-Ireland final and, even then, they were hammered by Dublin in 1977. Down fared little better against Dublin in the semi-final a year later. The red-and-back swagger was gone.
A Lost Decade
As in the previous decade, Down won the Ulster title in the second season (1981) but were well beaten by Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. It turned out to be Down's only provincial title of a decade where Tyrone (3), Armagh (2), Monaghan (2), Derry (1), Donegal (1) took the other nine.
In May 1991, a month before Down were due to begin their Ulster championship campaign, more excuses than players presented themselves for a training session in Rostrevor. The National League had gone badly, morale was low and there were even rumours that manager Pete McGrath, whose appointment was opposed by some players, was under pressure.
Four months later, Down won their fourth All-Ireland title and, three years later, a fifth was added. In between, they had suffered an 11-point defeat by Derry in Newry. It was Down at their unpredictable best, worst and best again.
The 1991-'94 squad, which included current manager James McCartan, didn't earn quite the same accolades as the early 1960s equivalent, but then nothing could compare with the emotion of winning a first All-Ireland title.
When Down beat Tyrone in the 1994 Ulster final, followed by wins over Cork and Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final and final respectively, it was assumed that the good days would continue to roll but they disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Sixteen years on, Down are still waiting for their next Ulster title.
Grim and Grimmer
The first decade since the 1940s that Down failed to win an Ulster title. Instead, they had to watch as Armagh and Tyrone shared all 10 between them, something that hadn't happened since Down and Cavan reigned supreme in the 1960s. The introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2001 seemed certain to provide counties like Down with a major boost but it didn't work out that way -- not until this year at least.
Remarkably, Down won only two qualifier games in seven seasons (2001-'07), a dismal return for which there was no obvious reason. It did, however, lead to fears in Down that their reputation as a county which could re-emerge very quickly in any given era was so badly damaged as to be worthless.
One step away from an All-Ireland final, thanks to their belated engagement with the opportunities which the qualifiers offer. Suddenly, the word from the Mournes is of tradition, confidence, big-day performances and, yes, a sixth visit from Sam Maguire.
It's as if they've never been away.