Staring down the barrel of the Dubs
Down have a proud history but have been cannon-fodder for the big boys in Division 1 - now they face their toughest test to date
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
One frosty night in early January, Benny Coulter made the familiar journey along the B8 from Mayobridge to Newry for Down training.
Before the start of the 2015 season, he and Jim McCorry could not meet on the same page about the commitment required. Smarting that the end of his county days were not on his own terms, curiosity brought him to a session under new manager Eamonn Burns.
That night, he left the county dressing-room for the final time. Just wasn't for him anymore.
Might he have been good to have around, for the last quarter of tight games set up for an aerial bombardment? Or as an example to the younger players of how to approach things without fear? And to show that even in fallow times, you can still aspire to personal excellence.
Ideas about what he had left to offer 16 years after he made his senior debut are left to unravel in the wind.
Since then, Down opened their Dr McKenna Cup account with a win over St Mary's University, their 2-14 concession a portent of what was to come.
Sixteen-point losses, to Donegal and Kerry, a nine-point loss to Roscommon, a two-point loss to Monaghan is the story of their National League campaign so far.
Burns might have preferred if the Setanta cameras were not scattered all over Pairc Esler tonight. But Dublin are coming to town. Tough.
Former player John Clarke can read the pulse of the Down footballing public as co-host with Coulter of a weekly radio sports show on the Q Network. Directing anger at the manager for the team's fortunes is futile, he believes.
"It was going to be a huge feat to keep them in Division 1. You feel the pessimism after Down lose a few games heavily, and they are on the back of the manager, saying the county board should have gone for somebody else," he says.
"The county board knew before they made the appointment it was going to be a tough year with a team in transition."
This feeds into a long-standing identity crisis for Down GAA. They have a place at the top table at present, but even the scullery maids feel they are dragging the tone down.
"Down people want success and it is a long time coming. They feel maybe a wee bit frustrated and the current team and management is bearing the brunt of that," adds Clarke.
The year of 2010 hangs over this generation. Only two years after they had failed to get out of Division 3, James McCartan brought the county to an All-Ireland final, bringing all the stereotypes of swashbuckling football back with him.
Proof of that was three Down forwards - Danny Hughes, Martin Clarke and Coulter - all making the All-Stars team, without a single Cork player in the front six despite winning Sam.
John Clarke was full-forward on that team and reflects: "I looked at the team that played Kerry there and there were only four left from the 2010 panel. It's a huge change in just five/six years of football in Down. Through injuries, retirements, emigration, it will take a while to turn full circle again."
The fact it wasn't even a fully mature team was their great pity. Unfortunate injuries to key players such as Ambrose Rogers and Declan Rooney, the defection of Martin Clarke back to Aussie Rules, Paul McComiskey drifting out of the scene, meant the ghost of that team hung around for another few years.
It hasn't helped the present bunch. Paul Devlin is one of the new breed and after suffering a complicated knee injury playing for Kilcoo against Crossmaglen in the Ulster Club Championship, has been nursed back to fitness by conditioning coach Ciaran Sloan.
He for one is sick of answering questions. . . if Benny is coming back, is Dan McCartan, Dan Gordon, Kalum King, Declan Rooney, all the lads who had soldiered for years and deserve their rest from the inter-county treadmill.
"A lot of people are talking about past players coming in, and what are they going to do without the past players?" he says.
"But we feel we have players who are capable of filling their boots. I don't see why people are dwelling too much on players from the past. When you see players in training, they can do the job. There is plenty of talent and ability within the squad."
Down may have the talent and ability. But they are lacking in game-sense, physical strength and leadership.
Ask Devlin, though, and he cannot let the negative vibes soak in.
"Whenever I am playing, I am playing to win. You play to win competitions, you don't play to think about relegation. If you prepare to fail then what is the point in going out onto the field?" he says.
The first night against Donegal showed exactly how far they need to go. There were bodies back in defence, but no real cohesion to what they wanted to achieve.
The transition between defence and attack was laboured.
In terms of energy, they were zapped after 40 minutes as Rory Gallagher poured on his veterans and young lads made to make an impression.
"I think a lot of that is down to there being a new team and a lot of inexperienced players on the team," Clarke reasons. "(They are) not up to the pace of county football yet and it does take time."
Whatever Donegal brought, they can be assured Dublin will bring more.
Clarke finishes: "Confidence again comes into it, and players cannot believe in a system they are playing if they are getting hammerings.
"I am sure against Dublin it will be an ultra-defensive game they will look to play, but you can only do that for so long against a team like Dublin."
Those of a sensitive disposition, may wish to look away now.