Down underdogs have bitten back
By John Harrington
Down’s progress to Sunday’s Ulster SFC Final has been the feel-good story of the Football Championship summer thus far.
Everybody loves an underdog, and despite their pedigree as a football county Down were certainly unfancied at the start of the campaign.
Last February they won their first League or Championship match in 22 months when they defeated Meath in Division Two of the Allianz Football League.
And even though they just about avoided relegation thanks to a last-gasp draw against Cork in their final league match, the Mourne-men were still seriously unfancied coming into the Championship.
They were long odds to beat Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final despite a home draw, and, even after playing some good football to win that game no-one really gave them a hope going in against Monaghan in the Ulster Semi-Final.
But, in what was the most entertaining match of the championship thus far, they played heroically to win a thriller by two points.
So where has this sudden Down upturn in fortunes come from? How can a team that was the butt of so many cruel jokes a few short months ago now find themselves in an Ulster Final?
“You can only kick a dog so much before it bites back, we have heard that said before,” explains team coach Cathal Murray.
“And maybe in terms of our performance, in that we have been at times ridiculed over the last 18 months or so. I mean, I only came in this year but there has been a lot spoken and written about the team and it irked a lot of people. And there was obviously a performance that was deep within there.
“We knew that we had trained very hard, we had worked as hard as any other team in Ireland. We had a plan that worked well, every man stuck to their task. It was a case of frustration coming out in some guys but men also going to express themselves and playing football. We have always been known as a team that will go and play football on any given day.
“But the nature of the modern game is that it is quite defensively set-up and there is a lot of talk of systems and things like that but we like our boys to play football and it was as much football as anything else, even though we dug in, we worked very hard and we frustrated Monaghan, we took our chances.”
They did more than frustrate Monaghan, they opened up one of the best organised defences in the country with the vibrancy of their attacking play.
They used some traditional skills to do so as well - accurate kick-passing into a dominant target-man in the shape of Connaire Harrison proved hugely effective.
“Well, that is it,” says Murray. “Our methods haven’t really changed over the years, we would still like to be known as a football team. We have had to move with the times. Maybe, we were naïve in thinking we could go 15 on 15.
“In the modern game, that day is virtually gone. You have to play a game and play to your strengths.
“People were wondering why Connaire even started against Armagh. And one of the things we said was that it was based on what was happening in training. And boys could see that the team wasn’t picked on reputation, it was picked on who was playing well. Connaire came in, took his chance and did very well.”
Murray won an All-Ireland medal with Down as a player 1991 and has a formidable track-record as a coach at secondary school level with famed footballing nursery St. Colman’s of Newry.
His role in helping Down reach Sunday’s Ulster Final has been considerable, and gives lie to the many people who said he was mad when he agreed to join manager Eamon Burns’ backroom team at the start of the season.
“Eamon and I would go back a long way, I was at games last year and I was seeing the frustration he was going through, and the players,” say Murray.
“Players can go out on any given day and play badly and when you get in a poor run…Eamon gave me a call in September, October time and people I spoke to after who I told I was coming on board, they were saying are you mad in the head, why do you want to get involved in that set-up after the year that they had.
“But when your county comes and asks you to do a job, you really can’t say no, no matter what the situation is. We knew that we had a tough task ahead of us, but I couldn’t say no to my county.
“I have been involved before with Antrim, and enjoyed the experience. To be asked to work with the best players in the county was something that I felt that I couldn’t turn down. I felt that I could also make a difference.
Down mightn’t have been fancied by many people to beat Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final, but within the four walls of the dressing-room they didn’t have to try hard to convince one another it as possible.
The county’s rich tradition means there’s always an ember of expectation that doesn’t need to be fanned too much for it to really ignite.
“Yeah, it is probably a confidence thing,” says Murray. “People talk about the Down swagger being back, it is not something I like to talk about because people think there is an arrogance about Down and stuff like that, which to me, it isn’t true.
“But there is a confidence in our ability. We are footballers.
“We have as good a player as anywhere in the country, you look at our clubs, they are pushing for Ulster titles, they have been there or thereabouts the last number of years, the calibre of player we had was never questioned. We just needed something to kick-start the whole thing."
They’ll go into Sunday’s Ulster Final as massive underdogs yet again, but Murray sees no reason why they cannot continue to upset the odds this year.
“Why not? Why not? There is nothing to stop us. It is a game of football, obviously they are massive favourites.
“What they have achieved over the last number of years under Mickey Harte is exceptional and the options they have coming off the bench, they are like for like, you are not playing just 15, you are playing 21 or 22 players, their whole structure, everything they have going for them is top-class, but we have nothing to lose.
“That’s the thing about it. People are saying we are in bonus territory because nobody expected us to get where we are so we are going to go out and enjoy it, that’s the key to it.”