Tuesday 18 June 2019

Poland steps away with Down's 2010 defeat the only black cloud on the horizon

Attacker still puzzled by his county's descent from heights of reaching an All-Ireland final

Mark Poland of Down. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Mark Poland of Down. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Like most other inter-county footballers considering their future, Down's Mark Poland consulted those he trusted the most.

For him, it was his father John and mother Brenda. They weren't entirely keen on the idea.

Sitting in a cafe in Newry a month after the announcement he was bringing it to an end, he recounts; "They always told me, 'Go back, go back' and I was going back."

He went to the team meeting on November 15. But even as the 32-year-old listened to manager Eamonn Burns laying out his plans for the year ahead, the doubts poisoned his mind.

According to insiders at Down training, he had never been moving as well as he had last summer. And yet the only championship action he would get was all in garbage time.

"I had boys coming up to me and telling me I deserved more game-time," he says. "I knew myself I should have. I have absolutely no doubt about that. If I was playing that well at training, and not getting much game-time, what was it going to be like this time?"

So the very next day he had the conversation with Burns. He was gone. That wasn't so bad, but telling his parents was much tougher. "They were devastated," he recalls. "Daddy isn't the emotional type. But he sent me a message saying it was hard to believe.

"He said he shed a tear or two and thought back to a south Down game back in 1995, 1996. And they would have seen me play every age group up. I think it was a shock to them.

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"I had told him I was going back another year.

"But then I came out of that meeting and I just had my mind made up that it was the right time for me to step outside."

As he points out, county players are not slow in telling the outside world of all the sacrifices they make, but adds in that the sacrifice extends to family.

He has one of his own now too. His wife Emer is a brand ambassador in Dublin for Jameson Whiskey, whose job involves a lot of travelling. They have little Cillian now, at 16 months, and: "It's the whole thing of having your first child as well, you want to be around as much as possible."

When he looks back on his Down career, 2010 is the cloud that will continue to hound that generation of Down footballers - Poland (pictured), Benny Coulter, Brendan McVeigh, Marty Clarke, Danny Hughes and so on.

After 27 minutes, Down were up by 0-7 to 0-2. Cork took 32 minutes to score their first point from play. It seemed Sam was coming to Down for the sixth time. Then Daniel Goulding caught fire, hitting nine points. A late scramble was mounted, but essentially Down ran out of time.

The next day, the Down team were brought up onto a stage erected against the main stand in Páirc Esler. Speeches and promises were made that they would be back to finish the job. But the losing homecoming is an uncomfortable experience.

"I was only back on the panel a year and I was drowning my sorrows that Monday and was oblivious to everything, just from what had happened the day before," he says. "So I was in a daze. Just wanted to get out of there. We went back to Longstone and if you had have seen the shape of me at the end of that night, then you would have known that I was hardly fit to stand. That was probably my way of forgetting."

He has never watched that final back. Not once. The odd time, he watches YouTube clips of the Down All-Ireland triumphs of the '90s. He has watched their incredible semi-final win against Kildare in its entirety, viewed the first half of the quarter-final win over Kerry - featuring his stunning goal after 51 seconds, but if the Cork final was put on over the Christmas period, "I would be heading up to my room," he laments.

"I have always felt that I had time to make amends. At that time we were in and around Division 1, holding our own against those teams and you always thought this is the way it was always going to be. But we have seen these past few years it isn't." He was taken off in the 66th minute and believes it to be a mistake. So too, belatedly, did his manager, James McCartan.

"James came up to me afterwards and said he shouldn't have taken me off," he reveals. "That I was getting on the ball and making things happen, but there's other players who were better known at that time, bigger statures who weren't performing and they were left on the pitch.

"But he was big enough to tell me, to apologise for the mistake."

In any case, he owed plenty to McCartan. While the Longstone man had made his championship debut in 2006, coming on as a sub in that ill-fated 1-7 to 0-4 qualifier defeat to Sligo, he was ignored until McCartan got the job.

Poland scored 1-4 against Westmeath in a league game in 2010 that clinched promotion to Division 1 but never got a minute in the league final against Armagh. Come the Ulster Championship,

McCartan handed Poland the No 11 jersey to face Donegal in baking hot Ballybofey. Poland repaid him with three points in a thrilling extra-time win.

"It was a big thing back then, constantly being told you were too small," he recalls. "But if you want to play county football you will be determined to do it. I suppose it goes in cycles. Everybody felt that had to be massive for a time, but I am reading Colm Cooper's book at the minute and he was 10 stone back in 2002 coming up against big men. You're going to tell me that skilful players are going to miss out like that because they are not big in stature?"

Now, it's all over. He won't struggle to fill the void. His face lights up when he talks of Cillian. He is employed by the Down County Board and renowned as an excellent coach. Longstone still will have his commitment and he is looking forward to getting at some boxing training, having fought as an amateur for Mourne All-Blacks ABC.

Then, there is Liverpool FC too. He gets over to a couple of games a year.

Life is good. Down football goes on. The cause endures.

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