Armagh clash will be litmus test of Down's credentials, says Hughes
For Danny Hughes and Down, perspective of where they are as a team in the greater scheme of things was illustrated emphatically during the recent football league.
They played what were, for him, the top three teams in the country away from home and lost each time. And if there was any sense of Down football getting ahead of itself after reaching last year's All-Ireland final, then those trips to Cork, Kerry and Dublin brought reality home.
They're a good team, but still have little road travelled. A one-year wonder? This season will tell a lot, Hughes feels.
"We had a decent league without beating any of the three top teams," he said.
"Are we good enough to be consistent and to be there or thereabouts in the final of an All-Ireland or semi-finals, are we good enough to be there for the next number of years? I think we'll know the answer this season.
"Can we break the stranglehold that Armagh and Tyrone have on the Ulster title? It's in the results and how we perform. The first step is Armagh. If we get through that, we look to the next game and try and build on it."
Armagh. The rivalry is among the most intense in Ulster. And into the mix is Paddy O'Rourke, the former Down All-Ireland-winning captain and former manager, who is in his second year in charge of the Orchard County.
Hughes doesn't see O'Rourke's presence in the opposite camp on Saturday as making any difference.
"That's more of a thing for Armagh and the media, but from a Down perspective we played Paddy in the league three times, we played under him, we know him so it's not really a factor for us any more," he said.
"The bottom line is we're going out to win a game. With Paddy or anyone else in charge, that won't make a difference to us."
The spin-off from last year's progress is that Down fielded one of the most settled teams in this year's league and that stability looks set to continue in the months ahead.
Change was minimal and the players liked the feel of a team being cemented down.
"It's a good sign. And you would see it even last year that the consistency of selection, it was new to us, in that previous to that there had been a lot of inconsistency with selections due to injuries and different things," said Hughes.
"It was pretty settled last year and that was down to James (McCartan) and the whole management team. As a player you do get a bit of confidence from the stability of consistent selection.
"There's a good push there. There's boys coming through on the panel this year, pushing hard for places."