MUCH of the talking points in the build-up to Sunday’s Ulster Championship opening game is whether Donegal’s Michael Murphy will be fit to play or not.
If so, it would be likely that Gerard McGovern will be tasked to mark him around the square. The Burren defender has been in exceptional form although he has been sent off on two occasions and Down can’t afford to be reduced to 14 men at any stage of the game.
Down can take huge confidence from the back-to-back league wins over Westmeath and Laois respectively but they’ll need to find another gear if to overcome Donegal. Paddy Bonner’s side will have another gear as they toyed with Armagh for a draw last month. Monaghan’s goal rush will have alerted the defence to tighten up too.
Down boss Paddy Tally has used 31 players over the four games they have played this year, that’s more than any other team in Ireland. When he took over the job three years ago, he said players would get the chance to shine for their county and he has stuck to that.
The short training window and change in panel has made building a settled team quite tricky but Down has found their rhythm and a system which they can get some joy from at the right time and the Down boss says he is concentration on getting his team ready and looking forward to it, rather than what Donegal could bring to the table.
“A week before the Ulster Championship there is always a feeling of anticipation and excitement and knowing this is the time of the year it is the business end of the year of Championship football,” Tally said.
“I suppose you can’t get very focused on the opposition and sometimes forget about what we do. It is about getting that balance right and obviously we have to look at the strengths of Donegal and they have plenty of them.
“They would have more big game experience than use and have been used to playing at a higher level in the League over this last number of years.
“But we are very much focused on our own strengths and what this team are good at, and we have to improve from the League, but we have only had four matches and it is quite early in the year of development.
“We just got to make sure on the day we play Donegal that we perform and if we perform to the best of our ability then that is all we can ask for. We will do as much as we can to challenge Donegal in the areas that they are strong at and expose them in areas we will get some change out of.”
Pace is undoubtably one of Down’s strengths. Move the ball quickly into the scoring zones or making speedy runs and getting fouled or scores is a tactic that has gained them results.
Down don’t have too many big men and Donegal does possesses plenty of power as well as pace. Caolan Mooney, Liam Kerr, Daniel and James Guinness are super-fast, while Cory Quinn and Barry O’Hagan have been sharp in front of the posts. But Down will need more players to chip in with scores and Mayobridge’s Quinn is a player itching to get a goal.
“A goal is a big score in a championship match,” Tally said.
“A goal for you or a goal against you can really swing a game, especially against a Donegal team who do not tend to concede a lot.
“Traditionally they have been one of the most disciplined defences over the past seven or eight years. They have been notoriously tight at the back, and we will have to play particularly well to try and break down their defence.
“So, if we can get a goal or two against them it could be a massive thing and we understand it is going to be a challenge and we are going to have to be creative to what we do and if we do get a chance then we have to take it, because they are going to be few and far between.”
The Down club league has been put on hold. The League and Championship will only start once Down is knocked out of the Ulster or All-Ireland Championship and while it can be looked as not being overly encouraging to the inter-county team, it can also shine a light on how the entire county is prepared to row behind the men in red and black.
“This is one thing I love about Down; it is a real championship county, and it is one of the county’s that give a county team a chance,” Tally said.
“They pull out the stops to say ‘let’s see how far we can go, lets really back this’. And when the players are finished playing championship with the county then club football kicks on.
“Players are not feeling pulled from pillar to post and that is really important because players come in knowing this is the county time and they can put all their heart and soul into the county and when that is over, they can pour all their heart and soul into their clubs.
“I don’t want the club players having to wait but I wouldn’t mind them waiting a wee bit longer. This has been an incredibly challenging time for everybody and not just in football. To have football and to have Donegal coming to Newry to play championship football it is like medicine for the soul.
“To have the pitches busy around the country almost every night is just incredible, and it is something we longed for, for so many months, so it is important we enjoy whatever football we can get our hands on.”
When Tally took the Down job, he took on a panel at low ebb and since then they have won promotion to Division Two and consolidated their place from a difficult group, which is a massive achievement in trying times. What we have seen is plenty of players grasping their chance to play for Down and the Tyrone native is pleased with how his players are developing.
“When I came in the first thing was to get Down going the other way,” he said.
“There was also the rebuilding of a squad as well and we would like to think we would be further on but the way the two seasons has been, it’s so disjointed.
“I certainly feel we have introduced a lot of players to county football. You look at Cory Quinn he us starting to come to his milk as a player and he is in his third season.
“Daniel Guinness, Pearse Laverty, Celium Doherty, Paddy Murdock, Peter Fegan and they have all really grown. And then this year we have Ryan McEvoy playing well Stephen McConville is back and playing well and Conor McCrickard is starting to play football. Liam Middletown has been introduced and we have great competition between Rory Burns and Marc Reid to build a squad with the players here.
“That takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. We have so few games at county level you have to take risks and put players in, so far, we have got a good bit of work done in the league, but we have plenty to do in the Championship. We had a very disappointing championship last year, last year we thought if we got over Cavan, we would face Donegal but now we will have Donegal and we are going to find out can we handle them. That is going to be a huge challenge.”
And giving the tough year it has been for so many with lockdowns, falling ill, being out of work, the return of football has been the light at the end of tunnel for many and Down can warm the hearts of their fans by putting in a good performance on Sunday.
“What Covid has taught us is that you have got to appreciate this things even more, because you don’t realise how important they are until they are taken away and they have been taken away for a while,” Tally said.
“Ultimately all this depends on winning too, we have to be getting results as well and the important things is that the players push on and that they are ready for the challenge of Donegal, and it will be massive.
“This is where they want to play and if you put yourself out to be county football at this level is where you want to play in big championship matches, especially if you are young breaking into a team. This is where they want to be, and I feel as if they will be ready for it.”
Down play Donegal in Newry’s Pairc Esler on Sunday (June 27) at 1pm.