All Ireland Football Championship: Seven-year itch drives Down keeper McVeigh’s Sam Maguire quest
Brendan McVeigh can remember his first season in the Down squad for all the wrong reasons.
It was in 2003 that the tall, lean stopper was given his big chance by then manager Paddy O’Rourke but after getting to the Ulster final, the Mournemen lost out to Tyrone after a replay.
“Tyrone got their hands on the trophy and then went on to win ‘Sam’ while we just went home feeling desperately disappointed with our tails between our legs,” reflects McVeigh.
And disappointment was to become an enduring emotion for McVeigh and his Down colleagues in the seven years since then, with false championship dawns and indifferent league campaigns conspiring to leave them in the shadows as Tyrone and Armagh claimed ownership of the provincial crown with the Red Hands garnering two further all Ireland triumphs.
But suddenly sunshine has infiltrated the gloom and McVeigh will now stride out at Croke Park against Cork on Sunday confident that Down can scale a new peak in terms of performance that will take them to a sixth title.
Yet while optimism abounds in relation to the team’s prospects McVeigh has more reason that most to ponder the nerve-shredding closing stages of the semi-final win over Kildare.
“There was pandemonium all round me in the lead-up to that free-kick which Robert Kelly took for Kildare.
“He could hardly have hit it any better, either. Our goal line was packed with players,” recalls McVeigh.
“I’m sure that people in the stands must have thought that they were going to suffer heart-attacks such was the tension. You can just imagine what it was like where I was standing.
“Yet I never thought that Kildare would score because we had enough men guarding our goal. Kalum King’s fingertips and Damian Rafferty’s head did the job for us in the end and we got the ball away to safety just as the referee blew the full-time whistle.”
But for the long-serving McVeigh it was very much a case of déja vu after the Ulster semi-final defeat to Tyrone earlier in the summer.
“We knew after that game that we had to have a look at ourselves. We needed more leaders and voices out on the park and we set about getting this. Everyone is now talking on the field and that’s a great help,” maintains McVeigh.
And the 31-year-old An Riocht clubman — the oldest player in the side, incidentally — is quick to hail the efforts of his defensive colleagues to date.
“Big Dan Gordon has only moved to full-back recently but he is excellent. I leave most things to him — I’m certainly not going to be jumping anywhere near him! In training, different players can be asked to play in different positions so that when it comes to a game, playing at full-back would not be alien to Dan,” points out McVeigh.
In the past, Down’s defence has been regarded as their Achilles heel but McVeigh points to the fine National League campaign as the basis for the splendid championship voyage that will culminate in Sunday’s final.