Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: Down ready to apply double dose in thriller of a clash

By Declan Bogue

There are a few weekends over the course of the year that bring on the tingles for Ulster GAA fans. The first day of a new season, trying out the Christmas jumpers and coats for the Dr McKenna Cup opener.

Opening day of the league, when the world is alive with possibilities.

If you happened to do well in the pre-season tournament, then you are primed for big things. If results were a disaster, then you deceive yourself that the manager got a look at all his squad and was holding things back for the league.

Then, championship. The season ramps up, through provincial towns like Clones, Newry, Armagh, Ballybofey and so on, until you reach that day: Croker.

This weekend, three Ulster teams head south, the trail of cars all meeting up at the junction near Stabannan, sending fans into a panic that they might miss the start of the first game.

And you wouldn't want to be stuck staring at the gaping chasm of the port tunnel this Saturday, not when the curtain-raiser has the novel attraction of outshining the headline act.

The pairing of Down and Monaghan for the second time this season is not unusual. Say what you want about the structures and whims of the qualifiers system, but since its introduction we have been served a few occasions where teams are able to get their own back in the same summer rather than skulking away in resentment for a full winter.

In the first year of operation it became clear there were teething troubles to negotiate. Fermanagh had overcome Donegal after a replay in the Ulster Championship preliminary round.

But within a month they were all back in Brewster Park, with Donegal giving Fermanagh a spanking.

It happened that summer between two other west Ulster neighbours. In a typical encounter of the genre, the late Eamonn Coleman was incensed as one of his Derry players was hit by a Tyrone player and therefore ran onto the pitch to make his protest physical.

"I saw the player getting hit. I don't know what the umpires were standing there doing," he fumed, showing that little has changed in 16 years.

Coleman had been opposed to the championship restructure, but the pragmatist in him emerged to say he was glad of it that evening as it meant their summer wasn't quite over. They came back to dump Tyrone out in a quarter-final contested in Clones. And in a way, that's what this system does.

It matters nothing what you have done before.

All that really matters after the provincial crowns are lifted is who remains in the hunt.

Take Kieran McGeeney for example. His championship summer began in a glass box in Newry, with Armagh embarrassed. Now he gets to breathe in the Dublin air on the sidelines of Croke Park, facing familiar faces in Kildare.

And whatever good Down took out of shoving Monaghan around the Athletic Grounds just over a month ago is gone now, disintegrated on the Clones pitch with that Ulster final humbling by Tyrone.

The way they bloodied the nose of the schoolyard bully are only memories now and they have to back it up this weekend.

Meanwhile, this is the tie that Monaghan would have dreamt of.

The accusations that they were physically intimidated by Down - caught unawares after beating the same side by 19 points a year previous - has embedded a scar in the Oriel psyche.

They have never been good at handling the tag of favourites - and the odds are lying firmly in their favour here - but they now know everything they need to about Down. The rematch of Connaire Harrison and Drew Wylie will be a strong fascination here, as will observations of how Monaghan can be a little more like Tyrone.

The Down-Monaghan game was a throwback to those days. As someone who prides himself on detail, the manner of the defeat would have cut to the core of Monaghan coach Malachy O'Rourke.

Now he gets a chance to do something most of us in life don't get a chance to - right your wrongs, with higher stakes spread out on the table before you.

And who wouldn't want that?

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