Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 19 November 2017

Dermot Crowe: Glory the only game in down

Winning in style is the Down tradition but today's decider is all about winning, writes Dermot Crowe

JUST seven players who started the 2010 All-Ireland final are named in the Down team for this afternoon's Ulster title shot. At face value, it seems a major cull, but the figures are misleading; injuries have contributed, emigration claimed the midfielder Peter Fitzpatrick, Australian rules took back the play-maker Martin Clarke. And it isn't certain that the team named today will be the one that lines out.

The omission of Kalum King, like the number on Danny Hughes' back, has lit great fires of speculation. Stationed in the "much-maligned" -- as Ross Carr puts it -- environs of the Down backline Hughes might seem a little lost and far from home. But aspects of the position won't be alien to him as he has been spending increased time drifting back and hoovering up possession in a role similar to what Mark McHugh fills for Donegal.

Two subs introduced in the 2010 All-Ireland final, Brendan McArdle and Aidan Brannigan, are part of today's team selection. Ambrose Rogers would have played in 2010 but for injury. The joint top scorer from play along with Hughes in the All-Ireland final, Paul McComiskey, is ruled out by long-term injury. Declan Rooney is another in recovery. Injury has forced the retirement of Damian Rafferty while Conor Garvey would be playing today but for suspension.

Taking those factors into account, Down are much as they were, just more experienced. Rooney and Garvey are major losses in Ross Carr's view, both strong and experienced defenders, while he also laments the loss of Clarke and Fitzpatrick. But they have coped with most of those absentees. Garvey is the only one that really sticks in the craw; the others have been away for some time and they have learned to adjust.

Tightening the defence has been a priority, and improving on strength and conditioning, areas where Down were seen as slow to follow the trends set by the major hitters. In both departments they have brought in specialist people, notably Aidan O'Rourke, to work on areas like tactical defence, tackling and discipline. It isn't the Down way, of course, to be mulling over how to stop the opposition from playing. But last season they regressed and they needed to address that. "Last year wasn't good enough," said Danny Hughes back in February, "it was very disappointing."

Injuries have made it hard to find a settled defence. Dan Gordon returns after a lay-off for his first championship game, at centre-back, a position that has seen plenty of upheaval. Over their ten league and championship matches this year Down have used seven different centre-backs and 34 players in all. The only ever-presents have been goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh, Dan McCartan, Mark Poland and Conor Laverty. Brendan McArdle has taken over at full-back since the league and plays there today. But 2011 saw much greater experimentation and upheaval with 53 players used over the season.

There are some encouraging signs including a defeat of Donegal in the first round of the league. Granted the match took place in Newry and neither Michael Murphy nor Colm McFadden played but they defended well and tackled hard, showing they could adapt to that kind of challenge. Defeats to Cork and Kerry followed before they raised morale again by taking the scalps of Mayo and Dublin. A narrow defeat to Armagh and seven-point win over Laois rounded off their regulation games. In the league semi-final, badly hit by injuries, they went down to Cork, for the fourth time since the 2010 All-Ireland final meeting. This was a more respectable loss and saw a reduction in goals conceded.

"They have to a degree changed their defensive strategy," says Pete McGrath, "in that they have now got half-forwards who are most definitely playing a lot more defensively. It is not enough to stick to one against one -- I think they have bought into that. And I think that is quite obviously in an attempt to get the bodies back and stop teams finding gaps when they do run at them.

"I know they invest a lot of time and energy and effort in tackling and drills, trying to deny the opposition time and space. Down are doing all of that. Like all teams. But I still feel that maybe in the county you do need people with brawn and that air of physicality, to be not only tackling but so that the impact of the tackle eventually wears down the opposition and has that sort of debilitating effect on them. Down don't have those sort of out-and-out robust players. And if they're not there I suppose you do the best with what you have got."

McGrath looks back to staunch linchpins like Deegan, Burns and Breen from the early 1990s and accepts that the county doesn't produce players of that ilk in industrial quantities. He agrees with Ross Carr that Garvey will be a big loss as he is the team's "most consistent defender and the player who most resembles an out-and-out defender, uncompromising and tight and tough marking. He knows what defending at this level is about. It is very natural to him."

It is not as innate a discipline to Danny Hughes but he had to become more acquainted. "For me it has meant a lot more work probably off the ball in covering and tackling which in the earlier years of my career wouldn't have come naturally," says Hughes. "I was more an out-and-out scorer and my scoring would have been a bit higher, but to be honest with you, you will do whatever it takes to win a game. Whatever the manager asks of me I will continue to do it. It comes down to making a choice of being an individual or a unit. To be honest, there is no contest; I just want to be part of a successful team, a winning team.

"You can win all the individual awards you want but it comes down to medals in your pocket. There is no doubt because of the way Gaelic games has went that there is a focus on working hard and working off the ball and in fairness the management have outlined what they want.

"We played Kerry in the 2010 (All-Ireland) quarter-finals and were well aware how dangerous they were as an attacking force and I was aware at the time that we had to provide some cover to our half-back line. At that time it was a matter of making sure the cover was there. Against Kildare (in the next round) it was totally different, they played very open. So every game is different. Against Cork (in the final) we attacked from the front foot and in the second half they just overpowered us.

"With Donegal we are well aware they are very strong defensively and break very quickly, it is no secret, we have to adapt our game to suit that. Against Monaghan last day out, we knew Monaghan would set up defensively and hit us on the counter which they did and we were not ready for them. We got it right in the second half."

He knows they have worked a great deal harder and prepared better this year and acknowledges O'Rourke's input. "I wouldn't see him as a defensive coach personally. I would see him as a coach generally and a very, very good one. Obviously as a natural defender he has brought with him a lot of experience in that department, and we will benefit from that. He has a lot of advice as regards where he wants me to be. And you carry that out to the best of your ability. I would not call him particularly defensive. Aidan will go to win a game. But he will ensure that we are defensively strong and organised. I think when all the players buy into that we are strong and organised; he demands 100 per cent concentration and effort from everybody. I think he has strengthened us as a team."

Down still like to play ball and believe in their skills tradition; it has had to be modified though. "We would be very much traditionalist and purist in Down as regards playing football and I don't see that changing.

"You have seen how Gaelic games have become so results-based; we have developed a Premiership soccer 'sacking mentality'. If a manager doesn't get results, he is sacked. To be fair, the Down board have been very supportive of players and management. They do it a Down way, they haven't bought into hiring and firing managers. You see it in other places where it is very short-term based and results-based."

McGrath feels they can't be too preoccupied with Donegal. "If there is one team who has got maybe the creativity and imagination to unlock Donegal, it is a Down-like team.

"I think they will try to play the game as far as they can on their terms. That Tyrone (v Donegal) game was a real war of attrition. They just squeezed the life out of Tyrone in the second half. It is about how Down are going to cope with this."

Damian Rafferty was forced to retire due to injury recently and featured in the 2010 All-Ireland final in Down's defence. He sees a mix of influences: Paddy Tally, the former trainer, brought a "Tyrone mentality" and O'Rourke brings the hardy and well-drilled resilience of Armagh. James McCartan, Rafferty says, ensures that Down's attacking nature will also be preserved. Of today's challenge, he says: "They know they have the players to do it and they don't fear Donegal."

How they achieve a first Ulster title win since 1994 is now less important that actually doing it, as Danny Hughes (pictured) admits. "Down fans don't care; I just want to win an Ulster title at this stage. I don't care how we do it. We badly want to win an Ulster title. If we have to dig deep and win dirty we will do it."

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