Danny Toner is helping Down develop
By Cian O'Connell
Danny Toner knows that for Down hurling to prosper every little thing counts. Toner remains an influential figure at senior level for a youthful Down team, but his day job as a Games Promotion Officer in the county means he is well versed in all matters GAA.
That is why the Bank of Ireland Celtic Challenge carries such significance. In 2017 Down captured Division Three silverware in the competition providing a real boost to those tasked with developing the game in Ulster.
Antrim triumphed in Division Two so nice little stories were being constructed with a winning habit acquired also. The benefits of the Celtic Challenge are mighty according to Toner. “Especially in a county like our own,” Toner admits.
“We are competing big time against Gaelic Football so we need a competition to keep the lads interested at that age group. That is the major thing I find the benefit with. Outside of that would we be competing against the top counties on a regular basis? Probably not, so it is fantastic in that sense.”
How do Down prepare for the competition? We have a training squad of about 35-40, we brought them in for a bit of a chat,” Toner replies.
“Those guys have been together, I was with them with the Under 16 Down team last year. We have a bigger squad in and we have a few games played now. The lads have been training once a week or once every two weeks because they have been getting plenty of stuff with their clubs.
“The lads all know each other. It is just a great process, the lads have been together now since an Under 14 development squad, so they have played 15s, 16s, and now this. They all know each other, so it is fantastic.”
Toner acknowledges that there is cause for optimism in Down with young hurlers now graduating on to their respective club outfits. “100 per cent, even going by last year's team, they won in their respective Division,” Toner states.
“A load of the lads off that have now broken on to their club senior teams and I would have a real cause of optimism about those lads making it on to the county senior team in the next year or two.
“A lot of them played in the Under 20 Championship against Antrim which was last Saturday week, we lost by a point after extra-time and we probably should have been Antrim. So hurlers are there, they are coming through and they are used to playing with the county.
“They are used to travelling, they aren't just going to their local clubs for training. They are all more than willing to do it, they have a bit of bite for it, they have had success and that helps an awful lot.
“If they hadn't won last year I don't know if the same bite would be there to play for the county. They all know each other and they have all had success together, hopefully it continues for them.”
Tough hurdles still need to be cleared due to the limited playing numbers, but Toner remains encouraged by the recent signs of progress. "We are picking from an extremely small pool in comparison to other counties even though Down is a massive county with I don't know how many football clubs.
“In terms of hurling you are looking at no more than 10. You are looking at the three senior clubs, the Ards clubs which is the stronghold of the county. Then you have maybe outside that you are looking at five to seven clubs, who do extremely well because they are predominantly football clubs.
“You have pockets in South Down that will be all football clubs, but clubs around Mourne are doing well, you'll pick up one or two players and that transfers into the senior team.
"We have lads from Banbridge, Clonduff, and Newry - there are opportunities for them if lads are willing to play and try to come through. Particularly at that age group there is a good enough future for them.”
Toner is now one of the more established figures in the Down set-up following the influx of a raft of younger players over the past 18 months. Down still reached the Allianz Hurling League Division Two Final, but were beaten by Mayo.
“We lost a lot of older guys last year,” Toner explains. “I think only eight guys committed from last year again. We had a meeting at the start of the year, we brought a lot of young guys just out of minor in, we brought them into a training squad of about 35 or so.
“In fairness there wasn't much optimism at the start of the year because we had lost a few pre-season games, but we started off the League with a bang.
“We had a bit of a blip halfway through it, but we got to the final against Mayo. There was a bit of complacency I think because the week before we had beaten Mayo by nearly 20 points, we played them a week after and they beat us so it was probably another opportunity missed.
“In the grand scheme of things we did quite well with a fairly young team, but that is no consolation, I suppose.”
The revamped Championship format with the emergence of the Joe McDonagh Cup ensures those competing in the Christy Ring Cup now feel they can compete strongly for honours and a day out at GAA headquarters at Croke Park.
“Yeah, very much so in comparison to last year when Carlow and Antrim were in it,” Toner states.
“Nobody was really going to get near those teams, particularly the way the other teams were going. Again at the start of the year if you asked me how Down would do in the Christy Ring with a young squad I would have said maybe not, but we have done pretty well in the League.
“All you can do is to keep building. I would say we are up there and there is probably four teams that can win it I would say. Four teams would definitely fancy themselves to win it and I would think Down are in that bracket.”
Toner is adamant that the standard of play in Divisions 2A and 2B is improving and hopes that Down can make further strides in the coming years. “I think it is a lot higher than what people think it is,” Toner says.
“A lot of people in our own county who would criticise us, but they are very often people that don't go to our games. There is a lot of work being done by the GAA in general. Some counties aren't necessarily strongholds, but they are improving.
“Resources are being put into the county. I'm not saying Down are a 1A or 1B county, we are nowhere near that at the minute, but if Down could get into 2A, at least. That would be brilliant. Those League games can be brilliant to watch, the likes of Carlow and Westmeath going at it.
“While it is clearly not Tipperary and Kilkenny, they are still good games to watch. Antrim did well to get out of it last year, I know they were competitive in 1B, it is maybe an Ulsterman saying that, but they were.
“If you aren't winning games you are going down that is just the way it is. In relation to 2A and 2B it definitely is a lot stronger than people with very little knowledge of it think.” Toner is still striving for improvement; the sheer hard work continues.