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down not up to dubs

FORWARDS slept a little easier on Saturday nights when Conor Deegan finally put the boots in the attic.

He was an All-Ireland winner and All-Star with Down. He was on the Down team that beat Meath in the 1991 All-Ireland final and again when they defeated the Dubs in '94.

He excelled at full-back. He was a team-mate of the current Down chief, James McCartan.

Conor also played minor and U21 for the county. His tall frame entitled him to be the ideal air traffic controller.

Most of his career was spent in defence. But he was versatile. He also operated at midfield, and he made his league debut for Down away to Kerry as a corner-forward. "I was just out of minor at the time," he said.

He played much of his football in Páirc Esker, Newry. The Dubs will be arriving in town this Sunday (2.30).

Both teams will be looking for their third win in Division 1 of the Allianz NFL.

The Dublin followers will admire the stadium. Conor wasn't so lucky.

"There was no stadium there when we were playing. The surface was very heavy. They didn't call it the marshes for nothing," he smiles.


"We had some great games on it. Some good results, some bad -- that's part and parcel of football."

The place will be humming when the Blues run out. Down's victory in Castlebar has lifted the mood. It's a tight division.

It should make for a cracking spectacle. But Conor is not so sure.

"There will be a great atmosphere. The ground will be packed to the rafters.

"Down would love to put one over on Dublin. Everybody always wants to beat Dublin. And now that they are All-Ireland champions, that adds to it even more.

"I feel Dublin are not the same team away from Croke Park. The fact that they have to come to a provincial ground will help Down."

But he suggests the hosts will need more than local knowledge to prevail. "Dublin are at a level pretty much above everybody else right now.

"Dublin and Cork are the two big teams floating around at the moment. Down had a good win away to Mayo on Sunday, but I just can't see them beating Dublin.

"Dublin destroyed Armagh last Sunday. It was a strong Dublin side, but it still wasn't their strongest.

"Down will play nice football, but Dublin will be too good, too strong for them. Down are weak in the areas that Dublin are strong."

Conor himself was made of granite. He's managing the Naomh Mearnóg senior footballers in Division 2 of the AFL.

He knows the Dublin scene well. He was previously at Kilmacud Crokes and Skerries Harps.

"Kilmacud was the club I joined when I came to Dublin. It's a club I hold very dearly, and I always will.

"They were relegated last season from Division 1. For a club of their stature, that was a huge shock. It wasn't that long ago that they were All-Ireland champions.

"They'll be doing all that they can to get back to the top division. And I'm sure they'll do that.

"I was lucky enough to win a Dublin Senior Football Championship with Crokes. In Dublin, you really have to earn the title." In 1998, Conor was on the Crokes side that overcame Na Fianna in a memorable county final before 6,000 people at Parnell Park.

His experience was crucial in that success. The Glasnevin forward line included Mick Galvin, Senan Connell, Jason Sherlock and Dessie Farrell.

"I have played and won the championship in Down, but in Dublin it's a different type of football altogether," states Conor, who was also a senior football selector at Stillorgan.

"In Dublin, you have a lot of big, strong, athletic teams. And with the sheer numbers coming through the clubs, that's the type of footballer that is being developed.

"It's a very difficult place to play your club football. It's the hardest in the country, but it's a great place to be and I enjoyed it immensely."

Management makes a different ring.

"You love it and you hate it in the same breath.

"It's the nearest you get to playing.

"But management is a poor replacement. You have to worry about everybody else and not just yourself."

Yet it still appeals. And perhaps someday the inter-county call might come. "Maybe down the line. That would be a fantastic place to be."

But he likes the scenery in Portmarnock. "I have huge regard for the people here. We have a fabulous group of players. The people are first class.

"If we, as players and management, can get things right, and the kids keep coming through, there's marvellous potential here.

"Mearnóg reminds me of Crokes some years ago. The potential is definitely there."

Conor also had a spell as the Skerries Harps boss. "I enjoyed it. It was my first job as a manager.

"We had limited success in that we stayed in Division 2 and we were always near the top end of the table.

"But it's like everything else. It's not easy. In management, you are learning every day. It's a tough auld station."

James McCartan and Pat Gilroy would no doubt agree with the star of the County Down.