All Ireland Semi Final: Down spurred on by years of heartbreak
Down's participation in the All Ireland football qualifiers spanning recent years may have spawned only heartbreak and served to terminate the tenure of two managers yet a number of the more senior players in the squad endorse the view that the basis of the current side was laid in those years.
And two of them, Benny Coulter and Daniel Hughes, are adamant that the agony endured in some of the team’s most traumatic defeats has proved a spur in helping to catapult the side into the All Ireland semi-final against Kildare on Sunday week.
Memories of dark days in the qualifiers are still all too vivid — that crushing 1-7 to 0-4 defeat by Sligo in 2006 that signalled the end of Paddy O’Rourke’s reign in charge and last year’s embarrassing 1-15 to 0-17 setback against Wicklow which ultimately terminated Ross Carr’s spell in office are among the more poignant setbacks which the Mourne County has suffered.
And a third round defeat to Wexford (2-13 to 0-12) in 2008 not only despatched Down into temporary oblivion but saw the then 23-year-old Ambrose Rogers suffer a ruptured spleen that initially threatened his playing career.
Yet if the misery and pessimism engendered by this catalogue of disasters impacted on the very fabric of the GAA within the county, the loyalty and commitment of the more senior players remained unshakable.
And that’s why today long-serving troops such as Coulter, Hughes, Dan Gordon, John Clarke and Declan Rooney are relishing the prospect of entering the trenches against Kildare convinced that the tidal wave of optimism that currently engulfs the county can help carry them into an All Ireland final meeting with either Dublin or Cork.
Hughes, nine years in the Mourne attack, believes that Paddy O’Rourke and Ross Carr stamped their own imprint on the squad even though results did not always go their way.
“Both Paddy and Ross were good managers who had to work with the players that were at their disposal,” says Hughes.
“I know we suffered some bad defeats in those years but we learned from those experiences, I think.
“The core of the present team has been there for a while and I think the difference this year is that we got off to a good start in the league and managed to maintain our momentum.”
Coulter, in his 12th season with Down, knows the agony of defeat better than anyone yet prefers to eye the future rather than dwell on the past.
“I have always enjoyed playing for Down — it’s a great honour to still be pulling on the red and black jersey,” says Coulter.
“ Paddy O’Rourke and Ross Carr are very distinguished past players and they made big contributions as managers.
“Maybe they did not get the consistency in results or the credit they deserved but they always took a great pride in the county.”
And he is in no doubt that the courage and single-mindedness that present boss James McCartan displayed in drafting in some new players earlier this year has helped to take the side to a higher plateau.
“James is obviously his own man but he is always approachable. He has strengthened the team and the fact that Martin Clarke is back and that Kalum King has been making a big impression at midfield are considerable bonuses,” explains Coulter.
McCartan himself acknowledges that his predecessors in the managerial chair helped to fashion a squad which he augmented.
“Maybe I have just been a lucky manager so far,” he muses.
“At the start of the year we did not think we would be in an All Ireland semi-final although after we got promotion to Division One of the National League I felt that perhaps we might just manage to keep up our form in the championship.
“We knew that it was here we would really be judged.
“It has been a case of so far so good but the next game is always the one that matters.”
The Saval stalwart is enjoying arguably his best ever season in the Down colours despite having to cope with a metatarsal injury sustained in the All Ireland qualifiers.
A former pupil of Abbey CBS and UUJ he believes that his sparkling form can be put down to the fact that he’s now a more experienced player, well able to cope with the inevitable pressures that big matches bring.
Big and strong his pace has made him one of the most feared forwards this season.
On Sunday week against Kildare in the biggest game of his career to date he will again be a hugely influential figure in Down’s attack as they set about securing a first All Ireland final place in 16 years.
It’s all a far cry from earlier in the season when the Mourne men lost to Armagh in the Division Two league final in Croke Park.
Crashing out of the Ulster championship to Tyrone at the semi-final stage was another blow but they recovered showing considerable character and resilience along the way.
The qualifiers proved their redemption and by the time they came to Croke Park and the match with Kerry they weren’t going to be denied.