Sunday 24 September 2017

Down are rejuvenated but Red Hand attack packs ferocious punch

Click to enlarge the graphic
Click to enlarge the graphic
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Mickey Harte gave an emphatic response when asked after last year's Ulster final win over Donegal where it ranked among the five title successes he had presided over in his 14 seasons as Tyrone manager.

"This is the best of them all because of the famine that was there for six years (Tyrone's previous win was in 2010) and because of what had gone on before when maybe Ulster titles were taken for granted.

"This is different - the county was waiting on this one," he said.

Now, if Harte and Tyrone supporters regarded six years without an Ulster title as a famine, imagine how Down people feel after not seeing the Anglo-Celt Cup in the county since 1994.

Antrim and Fermanagh are the only other counties that haven't hoisted it over the last 23 years.

In those circumstances, it's understandable why spirits have been so low across the Mournes, especially over the last two years.

They remained so right up to the opening game in this year's championship, when a spirited performance yielded a first win in Ulster since 2013.

It got better in the semi-final when they beat a fancied Monaghan team with an even better performance.

Now, the question is: will Down's revival endure or was it a case of beating an average Armagh side and a Monaghan team that might have thought it would be a relatively easy day out. They had, after all, beaten Down by 19 points a year earlier.

Winning tomorrow would be a spectacular achievement for Down but even if it proves beyond their capabilities, it's important that they remain sufficiently competitive to provide a platform to support their entry into the qualifiers.

Defeat would leave Down facing the winners of Armagh v Tipperary or Carlow v Monaghan (provincial games avoided if possible) in Round 4.

Despite a poor finish to the league (they lost their last three games), Tyrone started the Ulster championship as favourites, a rating they enhanced with comprehensive wins over Derry and Donegal.

The comfortable victory over Derry was unsurprising but nobody could have foreseen a 12-point win over Donegal.

Harte remarked afterwards that it was the type of performance which had been in Tyrone for a long time without actually coming out, a view echoed by Seán Cavanagh.

"We've been waiting for that sort of performance to come together," he said.

It leaves Tyrone going into the final having scored an average of 23 points against Derry and Donegal.

Obviously, a repeat of that would be more than enough to win tomorrow so Down manager Eamonn Burns will have spent the last few weeks working on defensive strategies.

Down resisted well against Monaghan and Armagh but will need another step up against a Tyrone attack that's playing with confidence.

If they are offered the sort of chances Monaghan missed early in the semi-final, Down will find themselves chasing the game under intense pressure.

That's not a comfortable position against Tyrone in their present mood, so it's crucial for Down to start well.

Even then, it's unlikely they have the all-round game to prevent Harte's charges from clinching their first Ulster double since 2009-10.

Irish Independent

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