Mourne men can't compete with the big boys – Conor Deegan
Former Down star Conor Deegan believes the Mourne men must look inwards if they are to return to Ulster's top table ahead of their championship opener with Tyrone in Omagh on Sunday.
Deegan's frank assessment that a provincial title is beyond James McCartan's side comes with the caveat that the current squad are operating at close to their maximum potential under his former team-mate.
However, he believes the structures in place to nurture underage talent in Down are well behind the likes of Dublin – where Deegan now lives – though he concedes the relative resources of the two counties make comparisons difficult.
"I think that is the problem," said Deegan, who is in charge of the Kilmacud Crokes senior footballers.
"If we want to be realistic about it, we have to start looking at the development side of things and you have to look at the big counties. I live in Dublin, so I see what they are doing and they are just producing development squad after development squad and that's why they have won three of the last five U-21s.
"They are always competing – but again that's the numbers game and being able to throw numbers at it. Down is a relatively small county, from a playing point of view, so it's hard to keep pushing."
Down's school system has traditionally underpinned the county side, with the Newry nurseries, St Colman's and Abbey CBS, winning three Hogan Cups between them since 2006, though Deegan points out those schools would have "developed half of Armagh as well."
In Martin Clarke and Caolan Mooney, Down have lost two of the brightest talents they have produced in recent years to the AFL and that has contributed to their slow decline since reaching the 2010 All-Ireland final.
"It is a gradual slide, but it is a slide," said the Newstalk pundit.
"I think James has done exceptionally well. I think he has pushed a fairly small panel as hard as he possibly can. They have responded quite well. He kept them in Division 1 until last year and a lot of it has been quite positive.
"But they can't keep going. You always hope they will come out and produce a big performance on a good day and hope the sun is out and it's not wet and all that and give them half a chance.
"There is no doubt Down produced good footballers for many years, but I think defensively we are not as strong as we need to be to compete with the big boys and that is pretty evident."
The more open style being adopted by the top teams should suit Down's traditional values, but Deegan fears the trip to Omagh against a rejuvenated Tyrone side will be a bridge too far for the Mourne men.
"Down traditionally like to play an expansive style of football that, I would suggest, is dependent on having the players to do that," he said.
"We are running off a very small panel and if one or two players drop off or are not playing well or are injured, they start to struggle a wee bit.
"It's hard. I can't see them winning Ulster this year to be blunt with you.
"I think Tyrone are not going to be far away this year in Ulster. They have a fantastic manager who knows how to get the best out of them and knows what to do.
"I believe they have a team that will cause problems this year for somebody at the latter stages of the championship.
"In Ulster at the moment, you have Donegal with big question marks over them as they have come up short. Monaghan did very well last year and continued that this year, but I still think Tyrone – who have forwards, are well set-up, well disciplined and well structured – are going to have a big say."