McCartan's new order puts Down on upward curve
THEY have gone about their business in a most 'un-Down' like fashion.
The Mournemen, under James McCartan, haven't been moulded in the image of their manager. Their championship performances have been understated, efficient and laced with professionalism rather than the style and verve with which McCartan brought to Gaelic football in his playing days.
We shouldn't be surprised. The league signalled their new pragmatic approach when they finished with the best defensive record out of anyone in the four divisions. McCartan hasn't just brought a new game plan, but a new philosophy.
However, the Down supremo, who quickly added Paddy Tally and Brian McIver to his back-room team on his appointment, played down their new approach.
"What I've tried to instil in the players to date is to work on the theory of winning the ball back in the opponents corner-back position," McCartan said ahead of their Division 2 league final defeat to Armagh.
"If we lose the ball we don't try to get everybody back inside our '50' and win the ball there -- if we can win the ball where we lost it, wouldn't that be a better philosophy?"
Down are one of the teams in the last 12 who have yet to produce a really big performance this season. Wins over Donegal, Longford and Offaly sandwich an Ulster championship defeat to Tyrone. Today they face Sligo, still licking their wounds from fluffing their lines when it seemed they had done all the hard work towards winning a Connacht title six days ago.
When the sides last met in the qualifiers in 2006, Down produced one of their worst performances in recent memory when they went down on a 1-7 to 0-4 scoreline and forward Daniel Hughes sees that result as a turning point.
"It was a real low point for myself and some of the senior players. We were well and truly beaten by a better team on the day. We had no complaints," he said.
"A lot of people say our Achilles heel has been our defence over the last few years. But when you look at our statistics, our defence was one of the best in the second division this year.
"We are defending as a team all over the field these days and the days of us being on a parallel with Newcastle under Kevin Keegan are hopefully gone. But we can still bring a wee bit of traditional Down football to it and attack."
Hughes is struggling with a metatarsal injury, which confined him to the bench until the final few minutes in the win over Tom Cribbin's youthful Offaly side, when a pain-killing injection allowed him to play.
That game was very much in the balance at half-time, but Down stayed inside a few minutes longer than the midlanders and did a vigorous warm-up in their dressing-room before emerging to steal a march on Offaly on the restart, which proved crucial as they won out by two points.
"With Down, success is measured in how many Ulster or All-Ireland medals you have. I suppose that's no different to any other county," Hughes said.
"In the championship, an Ulster final or an Ulster title was our main aim. That didn't work out, and we've had to set our expectations again. We don't have time to look any further than Sligo, to be honest.
"We were in this scenario in 2008 and we were confident going into the Wexford game and they gave us a bit of a beating in Croke Park. As a team, or, personally, as a senior member, I'm not looking any further than Sligo."