Damian Lawlor: Down playing to their strengths having sized up physical challenge
A win today against Derry would represent a massive step forward for Jim McCorry and his under-fire charges
Before the Division 2 league final, Jim McCorry took his Down players to London for an intense training camp.
They were based at Hazelwood, the home of London Irish rugby, and it didn't take long for a few wags back home to ponder how they could do with stealing a few big players from the Exiles.
Lack of physicality, power and size is a charge that Down have been fending off since the start of the season - even though they landed promotion to the top tier when they had been tipped to drop a division.
Ahead of that training camp, Down were on a high. They had made a national final in Croke Park and in doing so they had showed there was more than one way to skin a cat.
Even with a league final pressing, their manager McCorry wanted to fulfil that training schedule in London, perhaps outlining methods to deal with a much more powerful Derry side in Celtic Park today.
Yet, a week later, those few days away were blamed when Down were ground down in that league decider. Once more the perception arose that the team could not compete physically. McCorry must wonder why few have paused to consider what they have achieved in a short space of time. He took the wheel with Down at a time when he was still in fifth gear with Kilcoo in the Ulster club championship. Getting one team over the line while trying to pick another off the ground was some demand but McCorry didn't make excuses.
After taking the reins from James McCartan, who spent five years at the helm, McCorry knew he had to oversee enormous change. Benny Coulter, Ambrose Rogers, Dan McCartan, Kalum King, Liam Doyle, Brendan McVeigh and Dan Gordon had all stepped down from county duty, while Marty Clarke was dealing with Addison's disease and is not fit to resume until next season.
McCorry set out the path he wanted to take and who he wanted to accompany him on the journey.
"I said previously that when you are appointed, you have a pen in your hand for the first three weeks trying to get all the administration end of things sorted out, the backroom team sorted out," he said of his early days in the hot seat. "Look at trialists, look at panellists, look at training regimes, getting your secondary backroom team sorted out. There's an awful lot of organisation at the start. It's really not what you would like to be doing as a coach."
McCorry leaned on the words of former English rugby manager Clive Woodward for advice on what he deems the 'critical non-essentials'. "You must have all these bits in place to give you the extra one per cent and then you have that perceived advantage over the opposition who don't have that," he remarked.
Yet, despite the work done in London, they were taken apart by Roscommon in the league final. A man down for much of the game, they physically looked the inferior side. Perhaps the only positive to be taken out of the game was that they certainly couldn't be accused of showing their hand ahead of today's game. "When we analysed it and showed it to the players they couldn't believe some of the things we were doing," McCorry said. "They have corrected that, in fairness to them, and we hope to bring that into this game."
Not that you would need to be a sports scientist to predict a pattern for this afternoon's fare. It will be ultra-defensive as both sides play 12 or 13 behind the ball. Like the league final, this won't be easy on the eye. Derry only trained together with their full complement for the first time in the past two weeks but the type of football they play means they'll be hard to beat.
For all McCorry's great work, Down still have trouble dealing with the more robust teams. Their three worst displays of the spring were against Roscommon (twice) and Meath, who happen to have the biggest midfielders in the second tier with other powerful players around the midfield diamond. So today one imagines what they worked on in London will come to the fore. That could mean short kick-outs, playing the flanks, or getting rid of the ball before they get sucked into a tackle.
McCorry will have a plan in place. Looking at the player pool in Down club football, the culture is based on fitness and defence, not the traditional mindset of the county.
Down have achieved promotion when relegation looked distinctly more possible despite constant chopping and changing of the starting 15.
McCorry says his players must be adaptable to playing in various lines of the field. It's a gamble but one he feels he has to take. Championship summers demand settled teams and the failure to have a settled 15 playing week in, week out will keep every squad player motivated and honest, but it could ultimately destabilise the team. They have had a problem at full-back, for instance, and picking Aidan Carr to play there was slightly unfair. Darragh O'Hanlon, a half-forward for his club, has played very often at centre-back.
Over the four divisions, there were not many teams that have used more players but, on the flip side, in just six months the likes of Gerard Collins, Ross McGarry, O'Hanlon and Conall McGovern have stepped up to the mark. Their playmaker Mark Poland is fit for today too.
But anyone who watches club games will notice a depth of capable and imposing players topping the six-foot mark and being aware of this limitation since he took charge McCorry has encouraged his squad to instead be selfless. "You still need your marquee players," he said. "That's important. But you need to have the rest of the guys like a team, working around them."
Supporters are still struggling with the fact that they are too light. During one defeat in the league a number of fans wrote to the local media complaining that the side was indisciplined and lacking in physical stature, highlighting how constant moaning to the referee was off-putting. Indeed, one letter writer said that compared to a strapping Roscommon outfit, the Down team looked like jockeys.
For all that, there is serious commitment in the squad. Against Cavan in the league, Conor Laverty was named man of the match having only got married the previous Saturday. He cut his honeymoon to three days in the UK and was back on the training pitch on the morning after his wedding. "It was a busy week but the thing we're looking for here is to drive on with Down. We believe we are going places," he said.
Others also made sacrifices to play against Cavan: Darren O'Hagan had just lost his grandmother, and Niall Madine was grieving the death of a godparent. It's been 21 years since their last Ulster title. They look to be a distance away from easing the burden on their supporters. But with a win today their development could be swifter than people imagine.
Sunday Indo Sport