Former players happy to help Down
By Cian O'Connell
There is something about the red and black jersey, when Down begin to stir all sorts of possibilities exist.
Reaching an Ulster SFC Final and Round 4B of the Qualifiers is an encouraging sign of progress, but scratch beneath the surface and important steps are being taken.
A collection of players from the decorated early 90s crew are working furiously behind the scenes in an attempt to provide a platform for youngsters in the county.
Club Down has embraced the task to assist young footballers in the county. “About 18 months ago the County Board sat down with a steering group made up of Paddy O'Rourke, DJ Kane, Greg Blaney, and a number of other people to take a look at the underage development within the county,” former Down player and manager Ross Carr explains.
“Out of that they came up with a strategy. I suppose Club Down has been reformed or relaunched to help finance and provide some of the finance that it will take to implement some of that strategy. It has a twin attack, it is to look at the development squads and also to work with the schools.”
Having significant involvement from such a distinguished list of ex Down players aids the process following a barren spell for a proud footballing force. “Over the last few years it was disappointing, the senior team managements over the past number of years can only play what is at the end of the production line for them and our Under 21s and minors haven't been competing at a level that we feel that we should be,” Carr admits.
“That isn't saying we should be winning, but we haven't been competing, that has been the most disappointing thing. If you aren't competing at minor or Under 21 then there isn't much hope for a senior team management.
“This steering group that was set up, they are specifically looking at providing minor and Under 21 which will be Under 17 and Under 20 managers with a supply of talent that is capable of playing at an elite level.”
Time, toil, and patience, though, will be required according to Carr. “It is like a whole lot of things, to do it right will take a lot of time and a lot of man hours,” Carr says.
“Yes there are definitely signs that we are going down the right road, but as people well know there is no road you'll go down that you won't hit a speed bump or two. We don't think it is going to be plain sailing, but we have to start somewhere.
“What Club Down and the steering group is hoping to do is to come up with a package that makes playing for Down attractive again at underage, to try to involve people. It is more a complete look at things, you are trying to involve clubs, families, parents etc. and if you can supply two or three players at each level through from 17 then you are going along the right way.”
Eamonn Burns’ revitalised senior team enjoyed stirring Championship wins over Armagh and Monaghan before losing to Tyrone in the provincial decider.
Being involved in high profile matches shows younger generations that Down can compete. “There is no doubt about it,” Carr remarks about the boost providing by Down’s 2017 adventure.
“While Club Down aren't necessarily involved with the senior team, there is no doubt that the senior team in every county is the flagship team. If they are going well it provides a buzz and an environment where it is a lot easier to get the word out there.
“We won All Ireland minors in 99 and in 2005, we won back to back Ulsters in 2008 and 2009, but really since that we have dropped off the face of the map in terms of being competitive at underage.”
Is that also down to the industrious coaching work being carried out in Monaghan, Derry, Tyrone, and Donegal? “I think it is a mixture of things,” Carr answers.
“Obviously talent, but talent doesn't always win out in the end, especially in today's era and today's game where it is so competitive. Even the preparation of minor teams has gone on another level or two compared to six, seven, eight years ago.
“There is no doubt other counties have moved on, but in Down we don't think we have maximised the talent that has been available to us.
“That isn't individuals or players fault, I think as a county we haven't provided or created an environment in which young people can be the best they can be. That is the task that faces us at the moment.”
So far the reaction from the football mad public in Down has been hugely encouraging. “There is a genuine goodwill out there among Down supporters to see Down doing well,” Carr acknowledges.
“We are like every other county too, in that if people donate money and volunteer funds going forward, they want to know where it is going. We are at pains to point out that there is a specific fund and a specific vehicle for their funds.
“It is for development squads, people have been more than good coming forward with subscriptions and memberships. We are a long way behind other counties, I think it will be a three to five year strategy and plan before we see the benefits of it.”
Down’s deep tradition counts and Carr is delighted to help alongside his ex playing colleagues in whatever way possible.
“For a long time there was a number of us who were lucky enough to come along at the right time together,” Carr states.
“We ended up being successful in the 90s and a number of us are getting to a stage now where we feel it is our duty to give something back, doing it in whatever way we can.
"Some fellas are doing it in coaching and getting involved with development squads, some lads are getting involved with administration. Some of us are doing it through fundraising.
“No job is any more important than the other. What we have done is that we have just realised it is time to give back. We aren't forcing anybody, we are just hoping that people will believe in what we are trying to do.
"If we do that then we are more than happy to take their memberships.” Stars from the past are ready, willing, and able to shape Down’s future.