Burns brings Down back from the doldrums
Down’s manager hoping patience of fans will be rewarded against Monaghan
Down manager Eamon Burns: “My job is to take a team and put Down back to where it was in the 1990s. And it will take another number of years. We will just keep working away.” Photograph: Andrew Paton/INPHO/Presseye
In retrospect, the day was a crossing point for both counties. Down came into the 2012 Ulster semi-final against Monaghan with “acriter et fideliter” sewn into the collars of their shirts. It was the Swiss Guards motto espousing fierceness and faith. Down needed every ounce of both, trailing 0-11 to 0-2 at the break. James McCartan later quipped that he had the taxi already waiting on standby to make an exit.
Then, as if mindful that Down football teams are the ultimate boys of summer, they switched it on and won 1-14 to 1-13. It seemed like a lasting validation of the pecking order in the Northern province: the Mourne men had featured in an All-Ireland final just two years earlier while Monaghan, for all their endeavour, had fallen short again at provincial level.
Flash forward to Saturday evening and all has changed. Monaghan went on to bag two Ulster titles in the years after that and are a smart bet to take another this July. They have transformed themselves into a division-one-calibre team. Down have not been back to an Ulster final since and have not lifted the Anglo-Celt since 1994.
Turbulent two years
But after a turbulent two years, their appearance in Saturday night’s Ulster semi-final is a sign of progress under Eamonn Burns, the former All-Ireland-winning player who has demonstrated remarkable calm and perseverance in the face of near-panic at a prolonged losing streak.
“Although I didn’t give it to the players, I knew what the stat was in terms of when Down last beat Armagh because I played in that game in the Athletic Grounds and it was 25 years,” Burns says now.
“The majority of the lads on that team weren’t even born then so it was irrelevant. But to our large fan base, it was very relevant, so it was encouraging. It is a small step and only a small step.”
Burns served as a selector under his former team-mate James McCartan. He had coached successful teams at several grades with his local club Bryansford but had no ambition to manage the county. Then a vacancy arose when Jim McCorry resigned in the summer of 2015 after his first year in charge, just months after steering Down back to division one and citing lack of support from the county board as the reason for his departure.
That November, Burns accepted a position that few were clamouring for. It was a tough place to be: Down went from April 2015 until March 2017 without a competitive win. They preserved their division two status with a last-gasp draw away to Cork this spring and at last had something to smile about following their win over Armagh.
“Patience isn’t something that a lot of spectators have,” Burns says.
“Not just in Down . . . it’s the same anywhere. People want success instantly. I was under no illusions as to the task. I knew it was going to take an awful lot of work to get these young fellas playing as a unit and making progress. I knew it was coming.
“For me, it is a passion. And my job is to take a team and put Down back to where it was in the 1990s. And it will take another number of years. The job won’t be done in three years. That is a guarantee. We will just keep working away. I know below me that there is a lot of work being done in development squads. James is back in working with the minors. Conor Deegan is with the U-21s.”
Burns is quietly spoken but unapologetic in his dislike for the heavily defensive turn which Gaelic football has taken. He is not going to pretend to be an admirer of the systematic, smothering caution which dominates contemporary thinking. Along with Deegan and McCartan, he played on All-Ireland winning teams that thrived on imagination and self-expression. He laughs when asked if there can be room for that brand of football in the contemporary game.
“You know the answer to that. With the blanket defence, that is nearly impossible. That’s exactly what I would like to do. Because I have players who can play football. They are not people who are put into positions that when they lose the ball they turn their back and run 50 yards to position A or B. I have a panel who are footballers, out and out. They can really play the game. But because this system has been taken on board by so many counties it is so frustrating for us.
“ If I go play 15 on 15 on Saturday night and play six men up the field, Monaghan will run amok. You have to give yourself a chance to win the game. You have to adapt. It really pains me to do that. I know the vast majority of Down people feel exactly the same. I hear pundits on television say: yeah, but this is how the game has evolved and this is how we need to go. This is not the way we need to go!
“This is not attractive football. I watched Tyrone-Donegal on Sunday and made three cups of tea. I never left the screen when the Cork-Waterford hurling game was on. So it is difficult to coach from a Down perspective.”
As a contest, the Down-Armagh game drew good notices as an open, flowing contest. But Burns is pragmatic and points out that there were times against Armagh when Down “shut up shop”. Since that 2012 game, Monaghan have become arch exponents of a highly structured and organised defensive game, with a deadly counter-attacking impetus. Last year, they inflicted a 2-22 to 0-9 punishment on Down. Burns believes that the year’s experience will have brought his young charges on considerably but allows that Monaghan are heavily favoured to advance.
“There is a course to be run. We would like to get to a provincial final and Saturday evening will tell the tale. We are in transition and I am not throwing it out as an excuse. It is where we are. Monaghan are a team that is not in transition. They have consolidated their position as a division one team and won Ulster titles and played in Croke Park.
“But Saturday night is Saturday night and anything could happen.”