Saturday 14 December 2019

McCartan faced with Clarke dilemma

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

MEMO to Down supporters -- check how far Martin Clarke is posted from the Cork goal and calculate your chances of being in the All-Ireland quarter-finals as follows: the further out he is, the less your prospects of doing business in Croke Park in August.

Cork will despatch Noel O'Leary on Clarke-watch wherever Down deploy their play-maker. Michael Shields will be similarly occupied with Benny Coulter, but it's the Clarke-O'Leary match-up which could prove most significant.

O'Leary is like a ferret which chases its prey relentlessly, especially when they wander into wide open territory. He enjoyed last year's All-Ireland final immensely, doing a very good marking job on Clarke, who didn't score from open play.

Against that background, it will be interesting to see if Down use Clarke in his usual play-making role, spraying passes with his radar-guided boot from out the field, or whether they place him much closer to goal.

That would leave Conor Counihan with a dilemma. Does he drop O'Leary back into the full-back line with all the risks that involves? O'Leary is a feisty character who prospers in the mayhem that often develops outfield, but would be less comfortable with the precision marking required in the full-back line.

Similarly, it presents James McCartan with an important choice. Does he use Clarke outfield, knowing O'Leary will be constantly on his case, or site him closer to goal?

The danger with the latter option is that it would rob Down of the intelligent promptings which Clarke (right) brings to their game from the half-forward line. However, it might well be worth risking, if only to see how Cork respond.

Of course, there are doubts over whether the Cork defence will line up as selected. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Eoin Cadogan or Eoin Cotter in the full-back line, releasing Graham Canty to the half-back line.

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Whatever about the line-ups, one area where there is likely to be a marked difference from last year's final is in physicality, especially on the Down side.

There was a feeling that Down were altogether too nice in the final and while their expansive game seemed to be working when they pulled five points clear after 30 minutes, it was unable to protect them when Cork ramped up the pressure in the second half.

Cork were allowed to build up an impressive momentum between the 40th and 60th minutes, in particular, during which they outscored Down by 0-9 to 0-2.

It was a period when Down's lack of experience at that level was exposed. They stood off too much, inviting Cork onto them, an opening that was gleefully expected.

That's certainly not something that a team like Tyrone would do and it's unlikely Down will make the same mistake again.

'One-hit wonders' was a phrase that cropped up repeatedly in Down's post-All-Ireland final press conference, with McCartan and his players stressing the importance of not becoming a team that made major progress last year, only to fall away this season.

Now, they are down to their last chance, knowing that it might well define them as a team. They could have got an easier draw, but, on the plus side, they know that if they dethrone the All-Ireland champions, it will put them right back up among the top contenders for the title.

That's quite an incentive.

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