Few football teams have both reinvented and rediscovered themselves this season better than Down. Win or lose the Division Two final against Roscommon in Croke Park this Sunday, Down will be back up with the big boys in 2016, and probably not before their time.
Corner forward Donal O’Hare puts this renaissance of sorts down to a number of things, starting with the fact that only those who honestly want to play for Down right now are doing exactly that.
“It’s just a thing that has been going around the county, that people haven’t wanted to play,” says O’Hare. “That’s their decision. If they want to play for their clubs, go ahead. But the 30 people who are there at the minute opted to play for the county and I think there is no better feeling in the world than wearing your county colours. Especially on a day like this Sunday.
“So at the start of the year we just dealt with our team, and we got on with it. I’m sure there are some players who would be good enough to play for Down, just like any county. People’s circumstances mightn’t suit them or others mightn’t have the love for it anymore. But we just played the cards we were dealt, and that was it.”
So far it’s been proving a winning hand – their rise to promotion beginning with a victory over Kildare in the opening round, while also taking out other more fancied opposition such as Cavan, Galway, and Laois.
O’Hare also credits new manager Jim McCorry for bringing an entirely neutral feel to the team, partly because he has Armagh roots: there is the feeling as well that James McCartan took the team as far as he could, and after several high profile retirements (such as Benny Coulter) 2015 was about a fresh start.
“A lot of people wrote us off, and said we were doomed for Division Three, and we used that as a bit of motivation. And when wee James [McCartan] left, a lot of other players left too. So Jim was coming in, with his new ways, new strategies, new game plan, new backroom team and, definitely, new players.
“So it’s a totally new team, really, and that’s given everyone a huge chance to step up to the mark. And by now Jim probably sees himself more as a Down man than an Armagh man. What he has done in the club scene in Down, he has won silverware everywhere he has went so it was only a matter of time. Definitely he had nothing to prove. If anything the players had something to prove to him.”
Again, win or lose on Sunday, Down’s thoughts will soon shift to the Ulster championship – and that quest to land a first provincial football title in 21 years: “I suppose that is maybe a long-term target,” says O’Hare.
“Our short-term targets were getting to Division One, and our bonus game is now, against Roscommon, in the final. Then we have Derry, in five weeks. Hopefully this year now – you just never know what will happen in Ulster. I suppose it is a little more even.
“This last 10 years or so Tyrone had their dominance, Armagh had their dominance, and I suppose Donegal had their couple of years. Now it is very tough to call, anything can happen on championship day – any team you meet it is going to be tough.”