By John Harrington
Their Allianz Hurling League Division 2A Final defeat to Westmeath was disappointing, especially the 19 wides they hit, but perspective still comes easily for Down hurling team manager, Ronan Sheehan.
He’s been working hard at the coal-face of hurling in the Mourne County for the last number of years in a variety of roles and has played a big part in propelling Down hurling on an upward trajectory.
Many of the U-17 players he coached in the Celtic Challenge back in 2017 are now key figures in his senior panel, and there’s a steady stream of younger players in the county he believes will make the breakthrough soon too in the coming years.
“Yeah, there are plenty of encouraging signs,” says Sheehan. “It's great to be more than holding our own in Division 2A and it's great to be in the Joe McDonagh Cup. The McDonagh Cup is probably the most competitive competition in the GAA at the minute. Very little between any of the teams.
“Look, we've made a lot of progress the last while, both off the back of that Celtic Challenge and then a number of other good teams we've had such as the Red High (St. Patrick's Grammar School, Downpatrick) winning the Mageean Cup this year as well was a big boost to Down hurling.
“We've four or five very good young hurlers I would expect to see break into the team now over the next 12 to 18 months. So, yeah, a lot to look forward to in Down hurling but an awful lot of hard work ahead of us as well both in terms of underage structures and the senior team as well.”
Back in 2017 Down GAA had the foresight to put in place a Player Pathway Programme designed to create a clear skills and preparation pathway from U-6 right up to U-20, and already it’s had a positive impact.
“I think it definitely has been successful,” says Sheehan. “Our development squads are working very well. We have a talent group underneath our senior squad that has about 22 lads in it that are either U-20 or just over U-20. They work with the same strength and conditioning guys as our senior squad and that's making a bit of a difference to us and we expect it to continue making a difference going forward.
“One of the disadvantages we're at, not just in Down but in Ulster in general, is that neither of our Universities are playing in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Yes, we're playing in the Ryan Cup and that's great for the Universities involved, but I think Down only had one player, Ronan Costello, involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup this year.
“So that's definitely something we'd like to see rectified in the coming years because the Fitzgibbon is a very important part of the GAA calendar and player pathway.”
Under Sheehan, this young Down team has developed a very modern, eye-pleasing brand of hurling.
In the same mould as trend-setters like Limerick and Waterford, they play a possession-based game that puts a premium on honing you skill and stick-work.
It’s a philosophy of play they’ve also worked hard to implement in the younger age-groups so that when they graduate to senior inter-county hurling it’s a more seamless transition.
“Yeah, we're starting to work on that,” says Sheehan. “Last year we had probably 85 kids at U-13 level. We didn't have a development squad as such, we just asked every child that wanted to come along.
“They were trained by most of the players and management team of the Down senior county team and we started working on those principles of play. Now at that age group it's very young to start working on possession games, but we're starting to focus on being able to field the ball and being able to pass the ball 25/30 yards.
"Obviously their wrists aren't the same level, but we're starting to build that style from a young age. Our U-20s now would play very similar to how our seniors play, so we're starting to bring that style of play through. All the best teams now try to keep possession as much as possible and it's difficult for younger players, but if you start those principles very early and build the fundamentals of the skills of the game and the ability to pass the ball accurately over a distance then that feeds through into the senior team over time.
“So, yeah, we're building on that but we've an awful lot of work left to do and I don't think we're anything near the finished article in terms of the senior team or our development squads.”
The three Ards Peninsula clubs – Ballycran, Ballygalget, and Portaferry – have long been the backbone of Down hurling, winning every county title between them since 1957 and consistently providing the bulk of the senior inter-county panel.
A significant effort to grow hurling outside of the Ards peninsula is starting to pay off now though, with Bredagh in particular making great strides.
Sheehan is convinced there’s great scope in the county to further develop hurling, particular in urban areas.
“It was great to see East Belfast get hurling going and start playing last year and think there's massive scope in Newry, Banbridge, Downpatrick, and Newcastle to grow the game. You have four major towns there and only one of them, Newry, has a hurling team.
“There's a hurling team on the outskirts of Banbridge, there's no hurling team in Newcastle, and there's none in Downpatrick either. There definitely is opportunity there and there's also opportunity when you see what Bredagh and Carryduff are doing in the south side of Belfast as well.
“Yeah, there's loads of opportunity, but hurling is a hard sell outside of the traditional hurling areas, there's no doubt about that. It takes an awful lot of hard work and coaching and a wee bit of funding as well and that's very tight at the moment because of Covid.
“We're no different than a lot of the other counties that are in the middle tier.”
As well as plotting for the medium and long-term future, Sheehan is also very much focused on the here and now with Down beginning their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign with a tricky trip to Kerry on Saturday.
Momentum usually counts for a lot in the hyper-competitive McDonagh Cup, and a positive start against opponents who also have big ambitions would be a huge shot in the arm.
“Yeah, it's a massive game this weekend. There's probably nothing between either of the two sides. Kerry beat us down in Austin Stack Park in the McDonagh Cup with a wee bit of magic proving the difference. And then we obviously got revenge in Ballycran a number of weeks ago.
“We're heading down there and we're confident in our own ability but we know we're in for one hell of a battle. There's nothing really between any of the teams. It would be great to get a victory but I don't think that Saturday defines the campaign one way or the other, there's a lot of hurling to be played after Saturday.
“Obviously though as the old saying goes, Tús maith leath na hoibre - A good start is half the work. So we're definitely targeting a win, but we're under no illusions at the scale of the task ahead.”
Joe McDonagh Cup round 1
Saturday, April 16
Kerry v Down, Austin Stack Park, 1pm
Meath v Carlow, Pairc Tailteann, 2pm
Antrim v Offaly, Corrigan Park, 2pm