Down manager James McCartan is preparing to launch the Power NI McKenna Cup campaign with an under-strength side and against what is perceived to be a backdrop of pessimism within his county.
His team have been bracketed with Armagh, Cavan and Queen’s in Section B which will provide an early examination of their credentials.
But while apprehension abounds, McCartan, three years in charge and still without silverware, has been considerably heartened by a message of support from his former comrade-in-arms Greg Blaney.
The pair fulfilled key roles in the Down attack when the Sam Maguire Cup was captured in 1991 and 1994 and Blaney has since followed McCartan’s journey as county team boss with considerable interest.
“I know that Down are going into the McKenna Cup without a few familiar faces but that should not be altogether to their detriment,” observes Belfast dental surgeon Blaney.
“I honestly think that this Down side are much better than they showed against Donegal in this year’s Ulster final and in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo.”
In those games, Down’s defensive frailties were cruelly exposed with Jim McGuinness’s side racking up 2-18 in the provincial decider and Mayo heaping further ignominy on the Mournemen in the last eight of the All-Ireland series by recording a whopping 3-18.
“These are not the kind of scores any side wants to be conceding in big games,” admits Blaney.
“It’s no disrespect to the guys who have been playing at the back for us but generally speaking it would have to be said that the defence would be the weaker part of our team.
“You cannot afford to concede big scores and still expect to win major matches in Croke Park.”
McCartan has come under fire recently for not including certain players in his squad but Blaney added: “I think if there were players out there whom James felt could do a job then he would be aware of them. Knowing him, he would only want what he felt was best for Down.”
Fermanagh manager Peter Canavan has confirmed his squad for the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup and it includes three players — Ryan Hyde and twins Che and Lee Cullen — who helped St Michael’s College, Enniskillen win the MacRory Cup this year.
Full squad: Ronan Gallagher, Niall Bogue, Shane Lyons, John Woods, Declan McCusker, Ryan McCluskey (capt), Marty O’Brien, Ryan Jones, James Sherry, Eoin Donnelly, Shane McCabe, Tommy McElroy, Tomas Corrigan, Eamon Maguire, Paul Ward, Chris Breen, Anthony McGuinness, Conor Quigley, Brian Cox, Che Cullen, Lee Cullen, Damien Kelly, Kane Connor, Ryan Hyde, Marty McGrath, Conor McAleer.