Wednesday 13 November 2019

Flogged by their own people - Down are a coming force, even if their fans don't realise it

Down manager Jim McCorry
Down manager Jim McCorry
Conor Laverty showing up to training the day after his wedding was the definitive act of leadership

Damian Lawlor

When Jim McCorry took the Down job last winter, it's safe to say it wasn't the most enticing package in Gaelic football. It may actually be the most challenging job in Ulster. You might argue that Fermanagh and Antrim are not particularly coveted gigs either, but at least in those counties expectation is tempered.

Not so in Down. Once the High Kings of Gaelic football, a section of their supporters are quick to get on the team's back when results don't go their way. Former managers have maintained in private that they are almost impossible to please.

After they somewhat unexpectedly beat Cavan last weekend, Kevin McKernan, the best footballer on the field, complained that the team had been flogged by their own people.

"I'm just glad the boys got over the line because we've taken a lot of flak from people around our own county, never mind from the media," he said.

"This group of boys are working hard and we've a great management structure in place. All we want is a wee bit of backing around the county and, I tell you what, you could be surprised.

"There are boys in their first year on the panel and they're taking a lot of flak on social media. I would just like for those people who are putting those messages up to put their name to it. These guys are slogging it out.

"There is massive talk around the country about the commitment that is put in at intercounty level. It's not only commitment - it's a love for their county."

McKernan's words ring true. While many of the players on the team are small in stature, they are brave to a hilt. And utterly, utterly committed too.

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Last Saturday night, the diminutive Conor Laverty was named Setanta's man of the match against Cavan. Only the previous Saturday, he got married. But hours later, while his wedding party eventually wound down, Laverty was on the training pitch on the Sunday morning with his team-mates.

"We went to England for a few days in between," the Kilcoo man said of the honeymoon he cut short. "It was a busy week but the thing we're looking for here is to drive on with Down. We believe we are going places."

Others made also made sacrifices to play against Cavan: Darren O'Hagan had just lost his grandmother, and Niall Madine was grieving the death of a godparent.

Rather than fire volleys via keyboards, the supporters should acknowledge that and give the team time to gel. McCorry has lost a generation of players and had to draft 10 rookies. And, unlike the other bore-fest game-plans that dog Gaelic football - in Ulster especially - Down like to play attacking football in the traditional way of their county.

Even though they packed their defence last Saturday, when they were faced with sweepers and double-sweepers, they still went on the offensive, with McKernan the chief threat.

When he first took charge five years ago, James McCartan undertook a rebuilding job, and now McCorry is doing the same thing. One would imagine there would be some patience shown but the knives were already out after the defeat to Roscommon.

Supporters wrote to local media complaining that the side was indisciplined and lacking in physical stature, saying that their constant moaning to the referee was off-putting; one letter said that compared to a strapping Roscommon outfit, the Down team looked like jockeys.

But right now there are few big men coming off the Down football production lines. Many of those that they did manufacture - Kalum King, Ambrose Rogers, Dan Gordon - have stepped aside in recent years, as has Benny Coulter; that's a lot of star quality for any side to lose.

Throw in the fact that Martin Clarke will miss this year with Addison's Disease, and you see what McCorry is up against. Meanwhile, the long-serving Liam Doyle is set to announce his retirement, and his leadership qualities will be particularly missed.

So, last night's game against Galway, regardless of the result, should only be seen as another stage of the side's development and learning curve.

That's certainly the way McCorry sees it. He has put together a new team and has seen them put in two spirited displays on the road, which is a notable feat for a team lacking in size.

He has placed his trust in team captain Laverty and that looks to be an inspired move. With the wind howling in Kingspan Breffni Park last weekend and high balls raining down on him, Laverty competed gamely, although the odds were clearly against him.

With that tactic backfiring - even though Down had the wind - McCorry was astute enough to move him further back the field, and it was the decisive move of the game.

Suddenly, with four points in the bag they could start contemplating the prospect of Division 1 football again.

It could be too soon for that, but Down are quickly re-emerging as a formidable outfit.

That's down to their manager, who won the Ulster club title with Kilcoo in 2012 as well back-to-back county championships in the last two years, and the new dawn he has ushered in.

"It's a new beginning in Down, it's not just a transition process," he insisted.

"There have been changes to the playing personnel, there have been changes to the management team and other structures. It is a tough county job. It is not going to be easy and I don't underestimate it.

"If people want to commit to what we are going to be doing, then that is great. If people don't want to commit to that then they can go somewhere else."

Laverty showing up to training the day after his wedding was the definitive act of leadership that McCorry would have been looking for. That level of commitment will surely encourage new players coming through after the clearing of the decks. Gerard Collins, Packie Downey, Arthur McConville, Kieran Gordon and Chris McKay are just a few to impress since coming in.

"Everyone is aware that there is very little separating promotion and relegation and that's why it's important that we get into our stride as early as possible," McCorry said.

Belief in the system and work ethic are the only ways this team can reach Division 1. With so many forwards of the same size - with the exception of McConville, who could yet be their target man - it's imperative that they stick to a formula.

For long periods they went direct against Cavan and lost almost every contest until they changed tack after 25 minutes.

"I thought our guys stuck well to the plan we developed in training and we beat a very good Cavan side in their own backyard," McConville summarised.

Finally, it's interesting to note too that the team has thus far thrived on the road. Perhaps they feel less pressure away from their own support.

What is for sure is they have a new-found resilience and steely character, even without the likes of big guns Coulter and Clarke.

"Those lads are huge losses," admitted Laverty. "But we have lots of new fellas in trying to make that team and we will drive on with them. We fully believe in them."

McCorry added: "We didn't think it was going to be our night against Cavan when we had two players injured early on but the most pleasing aspect was the guts we showed after that.

"We also missed some easy scores in the opening quarter but we did not let that get to us. The lads could have dropped their heads but instead they rolled up their sleeves and responded with courage and character.

"Players like Kevin McKernan are massive to us, on and off the field. He's a great leader alongside Luke Howard and Conor Laverty. They are three captains. Kevin says and he does. He showed great leadership."

McKernan never stopped running last weekend. He could have snuck in for two goals as well. In every game he plays his stats are off the charts with the number of possessions, tackles put in and supporting runs made.

Even though Down failed to land an Ulster title under McCartan, the team made progress during his tenure. The Mourne men never went below Division 2 and reached Ulster and All-Ireland finals.

With the mass exodus of players last season, and the change at the helm, little was expected of them in the coming years, but with a little breathing space, and faith, they could yet re-live those heady times.

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