Mourne star Poland almost lost to London
MARK POLAND stood in his granny's house recently and happened across a photo of Down's 2010 side.
They reached the All-Ireland final that year, beating Sunday's opposition Donegal along the way.
Since then the two sides have gone in opposite directions. Donegal have lost one championship match in three years, while Down have reached one All-Ireland quarter-final.
Injury and emigration – and even the lure of other sports – have hit Down hard and broken up that 2010 side who were only pipped by Cork.
Damien Rafferty and Liam Doyle have retired through injury, while Dan Gordon and Conor Garvey are unlikely to play for Down this year as they battle with their own ailments. Danny Hughes hasn't kicked a ball this year either.
Martin Clarke has returned to the AFL and, in another body blow, arguably the county's hottest talent since Clarke, Caolan Mooney has followed him Down Under. Another exciting prospect, Shay McCartan opted for a soccer career in England.
And it could have been even worse. At one stage earlier this year, London beckoned for Poland. Work as an electrician dried up and he might well have been preparing for a Connacht semi-final against Leitrim this weekend. However, Down came up with a coaching job.
"We obviously got to the final that year, but we still have good players and we are still competing," said Poland. "If you look back at our panel in 2010, we have had a major turnover of players through emigration and different things, so James deserves an awful lot of praise for having the team competing in All-Ireland quarter-finals."
Those absences put a league campaign that ended in relegation from the top flight into perspective, but also serve to underline the extent of the task facing James McCartan's side on Sunday.
"People seem to have this thing about Down – that they can turn up on any day and win – and I have always said that Down have footballers as good as any in other counties.
"It is just that, on some days, we don't produce that and you have seen that in these past few years.
"Last year against Monaghan, I don't know how much we were down at half-time and we turned it around. The same happened against Derry the last day, the first-half performance compared to the second half was like night and day," Poland added.
Down's second-half display saw them outscore the Division 2 champions by nine points and that is the form they will have to bring into the game on Sunday if they are to avoid a similar comprehensive beating to last year's Ulster final, when Donegal had 11 points to spare having led by the minimum at the break.
Like many other 'traditional' sides, Down have, Poland agrees, been slow to adapt to the demands of the modern inter-county game.
"Defending doesn't start at the back any more. It starts out the field and we thought we defended very well for large periods against Donegal last year. It was just a few lapses that cost us when it opened up," he said.
"We were a little naive in that we went out and just played football. The modern game involves getting men behind the ball and breaking out at speed and Donegal do that better than any other county.
"You can see from the championship so far that other counties are trying to match them and play the same way.
"It's alright trying to do that, but once the ball is put in front of goal, those chances have to be put away and Donegal seem to be very good at doing that too.
"Going back to the Ulster final last year, we had a few goal chances and we didn't take them. We are going to have to be more clinical this time round."
The memory of 2010 is still fresh in Poland's mind. He rejoined the panel that year, having made his debut in the 2006 qualifier defeat to Sligo when they scored just four points.
At the start of 2010, he admits, he would have laughed had you told him he'd be playing in an All-Ireland final in front of 82,000 people. The general consensus is that a win over Donegal in Breffni Park on Sunday is just as unlikely.
"They are the benchmark," Poland added. "They have only lost one game in the three years since Jim McGuinness came in. They are the team to beat.
"It is great to be competing against the big teams, but you want to be beating them as well. We know it's a daunting task, but it's something we are looking forward to."