Saturday 20 January 2018

Declan Bogue: Boys in Red and Black are back

24 June 2017; Kevin McKernan of Down celebrates at the final whistle after the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Down and Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
24 June 2017; Kevin McKernan of Down celebrates at the final whistle after the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Down and Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

BOY oh boy, we needed that! Down's win provided another compelling argument for those presenting the case to retain the provincial Championships in the face of overwhelming pressure for change.

For some time now, years in fact, the Ulster Championship was turning into a procession of favourites grimly 'doing enough' to make it a punter's graveyard.

There is a fallacy out there that Championship football in Ulster replaced knuckle dusters with feather dusters around the time the qualifiers were introduced. That does not bear scrutiny.

Take 2008 for example. Down beat Tyrone in a replay. Armagh beat Down in the semi-final. National League champions Derry were beaten in the other semi-final by Fermanagh, who had lost a Division Three final to Wexford as the curtain-raiser to Derry's all-but forgotten win over Kerry.

Fermanagh has also taken care of Monaghan - Ulster finalists the year previous - in the quarter-final.

What did change was the culture of some teams taking over. From Derry winning back-to-backs in 1975-76, the feat wasn't repeated until Tyrone in 1995-96.

Donegal were going for their seventh Ulster final before their hammering by Tyrone, and Monaghan were going for four out of the last five.

It would be our contention that there hadn't been a true Championship upset since the 2013 Ulster final, when Monaghan - who had played their league football in Division Three that season, brought down the reigning Ulster and All-Ireland champions Donegal.

Down, along with Cork in the Munster hurling championship - two counties that would recognise a lot of themselves in each other - have lit up the summer Championships.

For many, Down hold a special place in the hearts of northern Gaels, with many secretly rooting for them as their 'second team.'

In Fermanagh, it wasn't even a secret. For a spell in the 1960's, there was a 'Fermanagh Down Supporter's Group,' as improbable as it sounds.

The Erne county might have been playing a league game in Lisnaskea, but the bus ferrying a couple dozen Gaelic football fanatics sailed serenely by as it made its' way to follow Barney Carr's men in Newcastle or Newry.

Going through my grandfather's keepsakes in an old sewing tin a few years ago, we came across a paper rosette, red and black crepe paper with blue biro underneath proclaiming 'Up Down.' It was bought outside the 1961 final, before the record attendance at an All-Ireland final of 90,556 watched Down retain their All-Ireland title over Offaly.

Nostalgia also prevailed on Saturday night. The football was being propelled to a full-forward, who enjoyed a circus strongman tussle against the full-back. There was kicking. There were incredible scores, nerve and skills that shows that the game of Gaelic football is in a good place.

Monaghan were out-muscled in a game of hitting and banging. Onlookers must have been even more surprised at that than even the final score.

Here is the confusing part.

You hear talk of 'The Down swagger', or 'The Down Way' and it makes serious coaches in that county cringe. They prefer those kind of labels are reserved for branding of the county by administrators, as the very notion they are wedded to an old-type football style is patronising in the extreme to all the work going on in the county.

But after the win over Armagh, Down's one-man wrecking ball midfielder Peter Turley said of the introduction of sports psychologist Brendan Hackett; "He's been playing a big part…Maybe that part has been missing a little while. The belief.

"Brendan was always telling us about the '60s teams, pushing that at us that we have a tradition of football, of going out and expressing ourselves."

Prior to Hackett linking up with the camp in mid-February, Down were without a win in league and Championship since April 5th, 2015. 

Since he joined, they beat Meath at home and followed it with a win away to Derry. They wobbled when beaten in the next two by the promoted sides Kildare and Galway, but recovered to survive by forcing a draw on the final play against Cork.

In Championship, they beat Armagh for the first time in 25 years and humbled Monaghan.

Hackett cast up all that history that seemed to weigh the players down. They responded by soaring.

As a strategy, it was risky. After all, a lot of these players were mere infants, or even unborn when Down won their last Ulster and All-Ireland titles though there are reminders around the dressing room as the children of that generation - Aidan Carr and Kevin McKernan - important leaders within the group.

Their achievements thus far reminds us that mindset is everything.


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