O'Rourke set for an emotional return
THERE'LL be a blurring of previously very distinct borders in Newry tonight when Paddy O'Rourke, a double All-Ireland winner and captain of the 1991 Down team, will be considered hostile by the natives.
Armagh manager O'Rourke has stressed that this is "just another game" for him, but emotions will have to run high when he sees former team-mate from the 1991 and '94 teams, James McCartan Jnr, patrolling the touchline for the home side.
It won't be lost on O'Rourke either that it was James McCartan Snr who first called him into the senior squad in 1978 and that a win tonight will go a long way towards securing Division 1 football for Armagh next year.
Pete McGrath knows both men well, having appointed O'Rourke as captain to win that All-Ireland in '91 and nurtured McCartan's prodigious talent, and sees two very different management styles clashing tonight.
"They were always very competitive as players and achieved a lot. Paddy O'Rourke was a very natural leader of men and was a man who led by example and was always able to take people with him.
"James would have been a different type of person and player. He was a very talented player and made a major contribution to the successes of 1991 and 1994. James got on with his own game, he wasn't very vocal in the dressing-room but he led by his example on the field.
"In certain ways, Paddy might wish this game wasn't taking place but it's there and knowing Paddy he'll take it as another game of football that he has to pick a team for and that's the way he'll approach it.
"It will be an emotional night for Paddy, and a difficult night so I think he'll be glad when it's over, irrespective of what way it goes."
As is often the case with Down, there is a blot on their otherwise excellent formbook. Tipperary escaped from Newry with an unlikely draw but there is cause for optimism in the Mournes.
The return of Martin Clarke from the AFL has proved to be a missive fillip for the county while his brother, John, has also rediscovered his form after being overlooked by the county selectors last year.
Add the talented Paul McComiskey and others from the U-21 side that was pipped to the All-Ireland title by Cork last year to established players like of Benny Coulter, and Down have a forward unit of real potency.
"The Down teams that were successful, they always had very capable and instinctive forwards," said McGrath. "But at the minute, the range of forwards that are there is stronger than anything that has been there for maybe eight, nine or 10 years.
"Martin can be a great player. As his career progresses, then he will be assessed. But he's got the talent, potential, physique and all the attributes required to be a great player, it's just a question of him fulfilling that."
For McGrath, Division 1 football is where teams need to be if they are to prepare properly for championship fare, giving tonight's clash added significance.
"There's no doubt that there is a distinct difference (between Division 1 and 2). In Division 2, Armagh and Down are coming away a little bit but look at Donegal, Laois, Westmeath and Tipperary and you ask what have these teams achieved in recent years? Nothing.
"So if a team is going to reach for the ultimate in terms of All-Irelands, it's a big help to be in Division 1."
Despite being controversially overlooked for the Down post, he is ready to give inter-county management another twist and is now open to approaches from other counties.
"I was nearly with Louth at the start of the season, I was nearly confirmed but other circumstances intervened. I'd love one more crack at county football and if that's with another county, well at this stage it wouldn't bother me.
"Down would have been my first option, I have no problem saying that, and I was bitterly disappointed when it didn't work out. Maybe that incident will make it easier for me to go to another county at this stage.
"At the end of the day, you feel certain loyalty to your own county and your own people but if there's an element of them turning their back on you, you say to yourself that you don't owe them anything and it's your own life. If the opportunity of another county came, I'd definitely give it serious consideration."