Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 21 January 2018

Hand of history can lift Down

Kerry's Mick O'Connell (centre) in action against Sean O'Neill (left) and John Purdy of Down during the 1968 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
Kerry's Mick O'Connell (centre) in action against Sean O'Neill (left) and John Purdy of Down during the 1968 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

KERRY footballers are not easily spooked, which is just as well for their mental disposition as they prepare for Saturday's AllIreland quarter-final clash with Down.

There's very little Kerry haven't achieved in football championship history but Colm Cooper and Co still find themselves facing a challenge that proved beyond the capabilities of such legendary figures as Mick O'Connell, Mick O'Dwyer, Johnny Culloty, Sean Murphy, Pat Spillane, Jack O'Shea and Charlie Nelligan.

Uniquely in Gaelic football history, Down are the only county never to have lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland championship. They may have met on only four occasions but given Kerry's decisive advantage ratio over most opposition, a 4-0 deficit in their clashes with the Mourne men is an itch they feel badly needs to be scratched.

Kerry are hurting from the three defeats by Tyrone in last decade's championship jousts but it's 3-1 overall, arising from the Kingdom's win in the 1986 All-Ireland final. The Down situation is more irritating as Kerry feel uncomfortable with a zero in their win column against any opposition. They talk about their intense competition with Cork but it's one they have largely dominated quite comfortably over the years. It's even more marked with Dublin, despite claims that this is one of the most competitive rivalries in Gaelic football.

A 14-2 return (with one draw) in Kerry's favour since 1941 proves that their relationship with Dublin isn't quite on the parity levels some would have you believe every time they clash.

Different

Other than Down, the only counties whom Kerry haven't beaten in the championship are Donegal, Kilkenny and Westmeath -- probably because they haven't played them. Down are different, having beaten Kerry four times with the winning margin six or more points on three occasions.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that it's the 50th anniversary of Down's first All-Ireland success, which was achieved with an eight-point win over Kerry. Down were credited with revolutionising preparation and tactics in that era, leaving even Kerry struggling.

"Down trained harder and became fitter; they looked after their players; they worked on tactics; they were aggressive and mobile; they studied the opposition; they interchanged players; in short they were ahead of their time. On the minus side, they also introduced a degree of negativity which must have been pre-planned," wrote Mick O'Dwyer in his autobiography. "They would have been in trouble in the modern game, where a loud sneeze can draw a yellow card and a follow-up cough leaves a player heading for the dressing-room.

"Down would have had to adapt to that but were probably good enough to do so."

Current Down manager James McCartan can tap into the psyche which helped Down cause Kerry -- and everybody else -- so many problems in the early 1960s as his father, James Snr, was one of the main driving influences at centre-forward.

Of course, James Jnr was just as important to the Down team which beat Kerry in the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final and which went on to win the All-Ireland title later that season and again in 1994.

It would be ironic if, in addition to extending their championship dominance over Kerry, they were also to become the first team to beat the Kingdom in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

That's the dual prize on offer for Down, who are seeking to reach the semi-final stage for the first time since 1994.

Harness

Now, the question is to what degree they can harness the hand of history to make up for what appears to be a gulf in class between themselves and their opponents from the south.

Even allowing for the absence of suspended duo Tomas O Se and Paul Galvin, Kerry still come in well ahead of Down on all the major classifications.

Unlike previous championship clashes with Kerry, Down are not Ulster champions. Nor were they handed a particularly difficult qualifier route, which included Longford (at home), Offaly and a Sligo team which was mentally drained by the Connacht final defeat six days earlier.

Prior to that, Down had started well against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final, only to disintegrate once the intensity increased.

Nevertheless, Down will head for Croke Park on Saturday in a justifiably optimistic mood. Previous achievements over Kerry won't win the game for them but it will remind their players that their predecessors handed them a unique inheritance in the form of a 100pc success record against the greatest powers in Gaelic football.

Irish Independent

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