Conor Deegan downbeat about Down’s Ulster championship hopes

Former All-Ireland winning player believes size of panel will hamper county’s gameplan


All-Ireland winner

Conor Deegan



his county is up against it in next weekend's opening Ulster championship match against Tyrone in Omagh. He sees his county's problems as being largely linked to resources and feels the team and manager James McCartan haven't done badly in the context of its limitations.

“To be honest I thought it was as much as Down would have done this year,” he said in response to a question about the county’s season to date, a comfortable finish in Division Two that fell short of promotion. “I think they’ve done quite well in many ways. James has them playing at the moment to their max so it is what I had expected this year.

“We don’t have the numbers of players coming through – we can’t afford injuries and we can’t afford one or two players dropping off and things of that nature. It’ll be difficult and you’d fancy Tyrone to beat them but with the forwards that we have, you never know; you always have a chance.”

It’s 20 years since McCartan and Deegan played pivotal roles in Down’s most recent All-Ireland success, McCartan the goal scorer in the final win against Dublin and Deegan hugely effective having been switched from full back, where he won an All Star in 1991, to centrefield.

Down beat Tyrone in that year's Ulster final but the county – the province's most successful in modern times – hasn't added a provincial title in the meantime although in McCartan's first year as manager they reached the All-Ireland and ran Cork very close.

Player losses
That team fell prey to injury and emigration and a couple of up-and-coming players – most notably 2010 All Star Martin Clarke – ended up in Australia with AFL clubs. The Down tradition of accomplished forward play has had to give way to harsher realities. "If you look at last year," says Deegan, "James went ultra-defensive and started dropping bodies back. It should suit them. Down notoriously has liked to play an expansive style of football and I would suggest that that's dependent on your having the players available to do that.

“We’re running off a very small panel and if one or two players aren’t playing well or are injured they start to struggle. Being very blunt I can’t see them winning Ulster this year.

“You always hope they’d produce a big performance on a good day and you’d hope the sun was out and it wasn’t wet and give them half a chance because there’s no doubt that Down produce good footballers . . . but I think defensively we’re not as strong as we need to be to compete with the big boys. I think that’s pretty evident.”

Down have suffered from the premature break-up of their 2010 team and although the county can draw on two famous football academies in Newry, St Colman’s and Abbey CBS – “but they would have developed half of Armagh as well,” points out Deegan – and a decent minor tradition, under-age success comes only sporadically.

"It is every now and then and I think that's the problem," he says. "If we want to be realistic about it we have to start looking at the developmental side of things, what the big counties are doing. Obviously I live in Dublin so I know what Dublin are doing and they're just producing development squad after squad after squad.

'Numbers games'
"That's why they've won three of the last five 21s, why in recent years they're competing at minor level. That's the recipe but again that's a numbers game and being able to keep throwing numbers at it. Down's a small county from a playing point of view and it's very hard to keep pushing it."

Deegan has been involved in Dublin football since coming south and manages his own club Kilmacud Crokes. He is also an analyst for Newstalk radio. Whatever about his concerns for Down, he sees a bright future for their opponents next Sunday. “Tyrone are not going to be far away this year, certainly in Ulster. They’ve a fantastic manager who knows how to get the best out of them. I believe they’ve a team that will cause problems this year for somebody in the latter stages of the championship.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times