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Down are looking towards a happier new year

By Declan Bogue

The note struck by Down County Board chairman, Sean Rooney, was one of optimism for the year ahead as he wrote his programme notes for the first National League game of 2016 at home to Donegal:

"I would like to wish our new senior football manager Eamonn Burns and his backroom team all the best tonight and for the season ahead. We are delighted to have a man of the pedigree of Eamonn as our team manager and I would appeal to you all to get behind the players as we begin our new season".

Truth is, warning signs were already there as Down lost to Donegal and Fermanagh in the group stages of the Dr McKenna Cup although they did score a win over St Mary's.

That turned out to be their one and only victory in competitive football in 2016, as they dropped like a stone from Division One.

The summer brought no respite. They suffered their heaviest-ever defeat in the Ulster Championship to Monaghan, before losing to Longford by four points after extra-time in the Marshes.

For stalwart defender Brendan McArdle, injured through most of the last two years, the recent history has been an utter write-off.

Every team begins January with fresh optimism and Down have a chance to get their campaign off to a winning start when they face former manager James McCartan's Queen's this Sunday in the unusual setting of Castlewellan.

"Everyone knows the things that can be rectified, that didn't go right for us last year," the 30-year-old Annaclone man states.

"You can't beat getting an opportunity to setting things straight right away and it gives you a chance to carry your form through to the National League."

Drilling down for excuses, he offers only mild resistance.

"I suppose the fixtures didn't go for us last year with the four away games and the three home games against difficult opposition.

"In hindsight, with Eamonn coming in so late last year we didn't have the required time to prepare for Division One. Division Two will probably be equally as tough. They are tough opposition, but it is probably not just the same baptism of fire."

Since the start of November Down have been training hard. They added Rory Friel - an experienced athletics coach from Newry - to their backroom and have been pounding the tracks at Tollymore Forest Park outside Newcastle.

McArdle, employed by Down's sponsors EOS Logistics, also cites the addition of Cathal Murray as a coach and the success he has enjoyed at school's level with St Colman's Newry and St Louis' Kilkeel.

"He brings a pedigree and is a new voice. He has experience in coaching teams so he is another tool to use," chimes McArdle.

The re-establishment of Club Down, a fundraising body for the county board, along with the appointment of Burns' fellow All-Ireland winner from the '90s, Ross Carr as director of their new coaching structures, is another good news offensive.

All these are needed in Down right now. The passing of three-time All-Ireland winner Joe Lennon in November, one of Gaelic football's great innovators, was for many a reminder how Down's status has slipped nationally.

McArdle won't play along with the theory, rebuking: "When I joined the squad, Down were a Division Three team (in 2008).

"Over the last nine years or so, Down have competed in Division One and Division Two. Last season wasn't great, but at the end of the day we are competing among the top 16 teams in the country. So we are not that far away. It is maybe a matter of tweaking a few wee things.

"I think the vibes would be pretty negative after last season. At the end of the day we are still in Division Two. We have an opportunity there if we can hit the ground running in Division Two to push for promotion."

What does linger over Down like a pallor is the ongoing absence of one star talent, Martin Clarke, who will quite possibly be in close quarters with McArdle on Sunday.

Asked if his, and the absence of others such as Conor Laverty drives him mad, he answers: "It does and it doesn't. In fairness, every circumstance is different for every player.

"For myself, and for some of the more senior members around the squad, playing for Down is all you wanted to do from when you were a kid."

He continues: "Obviously, some of the players who have opted out, they have their own personal reasons. Circumstances change when a player reaches a certain age and they maybe get married and there are other things.

"Down would like their best squad out, but you have to go with the hand you are dealt. That's the way it is."

Hosting a college team should represent a chance for victory. Down have achieved three victories in what amounted to a mini pre-season tournament against Louth, but real judgment will be reserved until after the month of January.

And after that, the first home draw in the Ulster Championship since 1999 sees ancient foes Armagh coming to Newry; a temptation in itself, insists McArdle.

"You can't force an individual to play for their county. (But) You hope that players will look at the Championship draw and see that we have Armagh at home in Newry and will put their hand up."

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