Raising standards to earn respect
Down's oldest squad member Peter Turley is glad he stuck around to see a team transformed
Ennis to Downpatrick takes almost four hours, a long enough haul at the best of times. Peter Turley is retracing the journey, the day he left Cusack Park for home after losing to Clare in the second round of the National League in February. In the first round a week earlier Down had surrendered to a nine-point home defeat to Fermanagh. The Clare loss was their 14th straight defeat in league and championship.
When asked for his worst moment, this is what springs to mind. "The game was over at half-time. Clare could have scored five goals that day, I think they only scored two. It was over at half-time. We were beat, we were down, we were thinking: 'Is this rut ever going to end?' We hadn't won a game all of last year. Fermanagh beat us, now Clare. It was a long journey back from Clare, it was a nightmare."
Turley has been around long enough to have seen better days. His first year was under Ross Carr's management in 2008. But Ennis proved a watershed. A fortnight later they defeated Meath in Newry, the first buds of a recovery, and a late score from Jerome Johnston in Cork on the final day of the National League saved them from the drop to Division 3.
"We talked a lot amongst ourselves," says Turley of their long losing spell, "and we knew that nobody was going to change it apart from ourselves. So we just knuckled down and decided we are going to do whatever it takes to win. Thankfully we got that, and it was a hard-fought win over Meath.
"And then we went up and we beat Derry. Derry were good against Mayo, but that day against us, they were just very poor - they will admit themselves they were nowhere near the standard that they should have been at. It was funny, that was what we needed at the time, after that hard-fought win over Meath. If Derry had beaten us, God knows where we would have been, probably back to square one. Fortunately, Derry weren't up to scratch and we were able to beat them quite convincingly that day.
"Then when we were meeting Galway and Kildare on the bounce, both of them beat us but we put up good performances. That is why we were happy enough . . . well, not happy enough, you are never happy to get beat, but we knew that things weren't all bad, they weren't all lost. We went down to Cork and got a result."
That day in Páirc Uí Rinn, Down missed a pile and had Johnston not scored in injury-time they would have been relegated. Even then they were reliant on results elsewhere. "We were missing shots left, right and centre and then Jerome hit two 50s, tough ones that were on the wing, and he put both of them over which was what saved us. If Fermanagh beat Derry, we would have been relegated, which they were on course to do.
"We were all on the pitch, waiting, and someone had said that Derry had won. We were all cheering and then someone else came over and said, no Fermanagh were winning and they were winning quite well. So we were a right bit unsure and then someone just came on and said no, that Derry had won, we were safe."
The journey home from Cork was a different buzz to the morbid evacuation of Clare. "That was like winning a championship match. After a few games everybody was writing us off and saying we were going down. It was such a good feeling and the boys knew that there is something in this team and we need to push on, and if could get a run in the championship we knew that this year would be a success."
Turley's own journey has been interesting. His club, Downpatrick, also produced former Down players Conor Deegan and Barry Breen as well as the legendary former administrator Maurice Hayes.
"I remember Conor growing up, definitely. Himself and Barry. I remember the '90s team, I remember getting in the car and driving around the town, beeping the horn. We didn't know much of what it was about, but I remember doing it. In 1994, I had just turned 11," Turley recalls.
Having made it on to the Down senior squad for a couple of seasons, he missed the year they reached the All-Ireland final in 2010. "I had just joined the fire service at that stage, so I couldn't commit through work. It was a heavy blow to miss out on an All-Ireland final, it was annoying."
He didn't return until 2012, when Down got to the Ulster final. Maurice Field, an Ulster and Ireland rugby player who was his watch commander, encouraged him to return when he got the call. He has to regularly swap shifts to make training and travels down from Belfast. He admits there were times when he felt like jacking it in.
"It is normally when you are coming back up the road after a really bad defeat, you are thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' But then you realise that you are a long time retired, when you pull the plug on it at my age now, you are not going back. So it is a decision that you have to think long and hard about. A few times I thought about it, but I never really considered it."
Turley, at 33, is a powerful middle-third presence and the oldest member of the squad. This run has been unexpected. Last year Monaghan defeated them by 19 points, banishing them to the qualifiers where they went down after extra-time to Longford. It capped a miserable season that started with relegation from Division 1. A year before the championship drew another blank with defeats to Derry and Wexford. Until this summer they'd raised little dust since reaching their last Ulster final in Turley's comeback season five years ago.
Before the dramatic win over Monaghan came a vital home victory at Armagh's expense.
"We seem to be getting teams (in the championship) who were on form," says Turley. "We knew Armagh were on the same level as us. The fact that they didn't get out of Division 3 might have affected their mental preparations. We just felt we could beat Armagh. We knew it would be hard and things would go against us during the match but we just had to realise that and knuckle down no matter what happens."
The Sunday Game overlooking Down when discussing the Ulster final comes up. Did he see it? "I did see it. We just . . . I don't know, what do you say? To be fair, one of our boys did it as well when we beat Armagh, talking about playing Monaghan. Monaghan hadn't beaten Cavan at the time. It can be a slip of the tongue as well. We fully accepted that Monaghan were the favourites, they deserved to be the favourites. They were a far better team in terms of form."
What a transformation, though, to turn over a team that defeated you by 19 points a year previously. "Exactly. Our boys were realistic. They weren't saying it was disrespectful because you get respect when you earn it and we hadn't earned it although it's not nice at the time, but we hadn't earned respect at that time."
Did you begin to doubt yourself or the team when Monaghan made a strong opening? "No. I remember looking at the scoreboard and I think we were 3-1 down. At that stage not once did I think this is not going to be our day. It was just basically next ball and get the next score."
When asked about Down's level of aggression, he explains: "A lot of the boys felt they'd had enough stick and they weren't going to be walked over again. Nobody said we were going to go in and do them physicality-wise. We are all going to go out and do our job and we all know the game-plan."
He had to view the final frantic minutes from the sideline after being substituted. "We were a point up and I think Jerome Johnston got the ball turned over at one stage and we had a load of boys behind him and we were all shouting at him, 'Keep ball, keep ball' and he kicks it out and we were saying, 'Jesus, this isn't going to be our day'. The two times it happened when we broke out Mark Poland got the ball; first time he got it we were like, 'There is no one better to have the ball now and let him have it'. It looked like a foul but it wasn't and he got caught for over-carrying. The second time he got it, it was like it doesn't matter how many times, just get him on the ball and we were delighted with what he did."
At the final whistle he was photographed in the mayhem with his mother celebrating. "She is out there somewhere telling lotto tickets. First name is Cathy. She's at every single game. My sister Ciara plays for Down ladies. My mother is about the country all over the place and never missed a match we're playing. Goes everywhere."
Turley didn't get a run during Down's last Ulster final in 2012 and admits to being upset that he didn't. That shouldn't be an issue today as he is expected to start, despite not being named in the team. But Tyrone don't do sentiment. Down will have to play outstandingly well to win.
"It is going to be a really, really tough match. It is going to be a standard of football we haven't played this year and probably last year because the standard will probably be higher than it was in Division 1 of the league. A lot of boys are looking forward too it and that's just the way you have to do it - we have to make sure that the game doesn't pass us by and just get stuck in and see what happens."
Another journey begins.
Sunday Indo Sport