Down face Tyrone test

Down face Tyrone test

30 January 2013 - by BY MARK FITZSIMOINS

HOPE springs eternal for Down’s senior footballers when they get their NFL Division 1 campaign underway on Saturday night.

That’s when Newry’s Páirc Esler plays host to what promises to be an intriguing opener against Tyrone.

Mickey Harte’s new-look Tyrone side are just hot off the heels of a morale-boosting McKenna Cup campaign which saw them lift the silverware after Saturday night’s drubbing of Monaghan.

This was their fifth victory in the competition, which also brought wins over Derry, UUJ, Antrim and Fermanagh.

Down’s McKenna Cup journey stretched to three games.

Triumphs over Cavan and Armagh in the group stages led to a semi-final which ended in defeat to Monaghan.

With two extra games under their belt, Tyrone may be at a slight advantage going in to this weekend’s opener.

The 2013 line-up for Division 1 looks set to be one of the most competitive ever. Down manager James McCartan gives credence to this fact.

“It’s the toughest Division 1 since I started playing for Down back in 1990,” he says. I’ve never seen a Division 1 quite like it. There are no hiding places.”

McCartan is not far off the mark with this assertion. The division includes all of the All-Ireland winners from the past decade, plus last year’s All-Ireland runners-up, Mayo and Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare. Down will have their work cut out for them. A positive start is crucial.

Many predicted the Red and Black to struggle in Division 1 last year, but the Mournemen confounded their doubters as they managed a third place finish and a passage through to a semi-final with old foes Cork.

The Rebel County proved too strong in the last four as they advanced with an eight point cushion. Conor Counihan’s charges went on to pip Mayo in the decider.

During the course of the 2012 league campaign, Down picked up four wins and three defeats. A one-point victory at home to Donegal in the opener set the wheels in motion, but a subsequent away defeat to Cork and six point loss at home to Kerry meant that relegation was becoming a reality. Nevertheless, McCartan’s men picked up their form in mid-March as Mayo were pummelled out west and the Dubs were overcome in Newry.

An agonising one point setback on the road to Armagh was soon forgotten as Laois were extended in the Queen’s county as Down secured third position behind two of their conquerors, Kerry and Cork.

McCartan and his management team will have quite a lot to think about in regards to team selection for this tussle.

During the course of the McKenna Cup a few new faces were given their chance to shine as they were introduced to the scene alongside a chunk of more experienced campaigners.

Notable absentees from the past month’s action included Dan Gordon, Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes. Skipper Rogers (knee) and Hughes (back) are on the road to recovery after undergoing operations while Gordon suffered a broken foot before Christmas. The trio may yet still feature in the latter stages of the league, but their loss is a heavy blow to Down’s aspirations.

Brendan McVeigh should return to the goalkeeping role which has been administered by Castlewellan’s Michael Cunningham in the past month. Cunningham had a solid McKenna Cup tenure and he looked very much at home between the sticks. His presence will be of huge importance to the U-21 squad who get their competition underway shortly.

The Down defence conceded 2-34 in their three McKenna Cup games with the goals being shipped against Armagh and Monaghan. An average of just over 13 points per game were given up.

The full back line has struggled at times, especially with marquee forwards. Against Cavan, Martin Dunne notched 0-9 from corner forward, Stefan Forker plundered 0-6 from top of the right in the Armagh contest and Conor McManus reeled off 1-7 for Monaghan in the semi-final.

With Stephen O’Neill expected to feature at full forward and potentially Conor McAliskey and Mark Donnelly flanking him, the Down full back line will have to be at their very best.

Brendan McArdle will most likely take on the role of minding the house while Ryan Boyle and Dan McCartan will probably get the nod in the corners. Liatroim’s Gerard McAnulty will be in the mix for one of the corner slots as well as Bredagh’s Owen Costello.

James McCartan has a lot of options to consider in his half back unit. The most probable combination should read Declan Rooney, Aidan Carr and Conor Garvey. However, Bryansford’s David McKibben impressed at wing half in his outing against Armagh and he will be vying for a place alongside Clonduff’s Darren O’Hagan, Warrenpoint’s Ryan Mallon and Downpatrick’s versatile Damien Turley.

Whatever three take to the field they will have to be very much on their guard against a Red Hand half forward line that may contain Martin Penrose, Peter Harte and Jonathan Lafferty.

A feature of Tyrone’s midfield so far in 2013 has been their ability to convert scores. The returning Sean Cavanagh has converted 1-17 in the McKenna Cup.

His partner in crime is newcomer Plunkett Kane, a player who seems right at home in the middle third. While Cavanagh and Kane like to clock up plenty of miles they have had a penchant for breaking balls down to their half forward and half back lines.

Down may be able to swing the advantage here as Kalum King is more then capable of outcatching both. Conor Gough and Kevin McKernan have had midfield roles thrust upon them in the past few weeks and it is likely that the latter will join King. Peter Turley may also enter the equation at some point.

Down have an abundance of attacking talent at their disposal. Big hitters Conor Laverty, Benny Coulter and Liam Doyle should all feature from the start, despite being used sparingly in the McKenna Cup.

The return of Paul McComiskey has been a massive boost to all involved and he will find himself deployed in the role vacated by the absent Danny Hughes.

Longstone playmaker Mark Poland will conduct affairs from centre half forward. That leaves one vacancy which could be filled by any number of candidates.

Glasdrumman’s Connaire Harrison was the pick of the new recruits during January and he would be fancied to get the nod. Others in contention in the forward line and who will be hoping to taste action at some point will be Danny Savage, Arthur McConville, Ryan Kelly, Donal O’Hare and Keith Quinn.

Omagh’s Joe McMahon could be tasked with curtailing Poland while his brother Justin may be drafted in to keep tabs on Benny Coulter. The Tyrone defence has a few newcomers on board and if the Down attackers manage to click they have a great chance of keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

So far in 2013, Tyrone’s work ethic and intensity has been second to none. Mickey Harte is on the verge of creating something great again. However, despite being without the services of star trio Gordon, Rogers and Hughes, the Mournemen are still in a position to give this Division a real rattle.

Getting scores shouldn’t be a problem, but Down’s long-standing problems in defence may prove to be their Achilles heel. Tyrone have been scoring for fun so far this season and they will be very confident of extending Down’s back six.

An interesting battle awaits. If the home side can match Tyrone’s passion and drive and the Newry crowd get behind the Mourne challenge then this contest could go right down to the wire.