Down-beat times for the Ulster pioneers
One of football’s most influential counties, Down are struggling with the modern age they played a major role in creating
Current Down manager James McCartan in action during the 1994 All-Ireland final against Dublin. Photograph: Inpho
And in a blink of the eye, it’s the championship. Until the provincial contests are nicely under way and generating talking points, we normally just have to make do with the seasonal diet of “the attendances have collapsed because of the World Cup” and more immediately, “why does the GAA allow the championship to begin with a whimper rather than a bang?”
Last year began with a Galway-Mayo match that looked vaguely promising in prospect but turned into one-way traffic so caution is advised before getting too hopeful about next Sunday’s Tyrone-Down Ulster opener in Omagh.
Tyrone had a positive league even if not reaching the semi-finals and nearly prevented the eventual winners Dublin from even making the play-offs. Their attack is one of the most potent in the game and they have a vastly experienced manager with three All-Irelands won in the past 11 years.
Listening to Down All-Ireland winner Conor Deegan talking about his county a couple of days ago brought out the extent to which it has become almost marginalised was clear. Deegan was a key player in the last two sides to clip black and red ribbons on to the Sam Maguire and yet he was disheartened when talking about prospects for the championship. There was the almost weary lip service to the county’s great attacking traditions and how on the day, “you never know, you always have a chance”.
Deegan has been living in Dublin for a long time and some of his apprehensions relate to what he sees in the city: resources, population and development work all culminating in a growing presence at underage and senior competitive levels. Even the attempt at an encouraging question about Down winning All-Ireland minor titles “now and then” drew the response that such sporadic achievement was more illustrative of the problem than a source of hope.
You wonder what happened. In the history of the modern game Down have been pioneers in a way few other counties could claim to be. Their organisation, willingness to apply the emerging precepts of sports science to team preparation and tactics marked them out as a phenomenon in the 1960s. From 1960, the first year the All-Ireland was won by a cross-border county, to 1968 they took three titles.
By way of under-statement, the GAA in Ulster struggled during the Troubles and Down’s brave new world faded into the past. It’s remarkable to think that for 23 years Leinster and Munster shared every football All-Ireland between them.
Down’s next All-Ireland was as a result arguably as pioneering as anything in the 1960s. In an era when no one won All-Irelands out of the blue – and the ultra-competitiveness of Ulster was often used as an excuse for poor national performance, as the winning counties could never put together a few years getting experience of the All-Ireland stage – Peter McGrath’s team lifted a first Ulster in 10 years and rolled down to Croke Park to take on Kerry in August 1991.
By that stage Kerry were well beyond the golden era although some players remained but they were still wearing green and gold. Famously, Down have never lost to Kerry and I remember from a training session in Newry talking to a selector that this unlikely statistic was a source of motivation.
In the final, up against the most durable team of the age, Seán Boylan’s Meath, with two All-Irelands in the previous four years to their name Down somehow had the self-confidence to beat them. Other Ulster counties took note and Donegal and Derry followed suit in the next two years before Down added another in 1994.
It’s informative to look at the environment so hugely contributed to by Down’s achievements. During the 23 years before 1991 no Ulster county won an All-Ireland; in the 23 years since, Sam Maguire has gone to the province 11 times.
Sadly, however, Down are no longer trail blazers. Deegan paid tribute to how his old team-mate and current county manager James McCartan has managed the meagre resources. The county’s Team-of-the-Millennium laureate Seán O’Neill said of McCartan’s appointment four years ago: “Developing individuals into teams is one of his great skills.”
That was apparent in 2010 when he somehow guided a team to the All-Ireland final, taking in along the way the county’s sixth win against Kerry. There they suffered against Cork a first All-Ireland final defeat – but only just. Injury and emigration has meant that they have been unable to stay together to mount consistent challenges.
The current side makes its way to Omagh unburdened by expectation. Before the championship in 2010, Seán O’Neill said of his county’s prospects: “We’re maybe not ready for a major assault this year but momentum builds quickly in Down squads.”
A month later they lost to Tyrone but four months of qualifier endeavour later were back in an All-Ireland final. As Conor Deegan says: “You never know.”