Down manager James McCartan, devastated when his side were shunted out of the Ulster championship by Armagh some weeks ago, can today take comfort from the fact that the hunger which epitomised a thrilling odyssey in last year’s qualifiers remains embedded within his squad.
If Down diced with danger in scraping to a one-point win over Clare in their first back door engagement of this term, then this eight-point win over Mickey Moran’s plucky Leitrim at Pairc Esler, Newry not only copper-fastened their place in the next phase but provided McCartan with a fresh insight into his side’s psyche.
In the past, Down teams might have bowed the knee when opponents hinted at taking control — on this occasion, they responded to Leitrim’s insurgence with interest.
“I was very pleased with the way we responded after Leitrim scored their goal,” reflected McCartan. “I think this showed the spirit of the team and their desire. Leitrim took the lead at that stage just after the break but we stepped up our intensity which was pleasing.”
It was a Martin Clarke goal from a penalty in the 14th minute that helped to underpin Down’s 1-5 to 0-6 interval lead by which stage Benny Coulter already had one hand on the man of the match accolade having swept over three points, with Emlyn Mulligan’s brace helping to sustain Leitrim’s feisty challenge.
Adrian Croal’s well-taken goal immediately on the resumption should have inspired the visitors — instead it merely fuelled Down’s fire, eight unanswered points from the 37th to the 54th minute propelling them into the comfort zone.
And while the work-rate of Declan Rooney and Kalum King in the middle third and the cool authority of Brendan McKernan, the fit-again Conor Garvey and Dan Gordon at the back energised McCartan’s men, Coulter was the ace in their pack.
Four more second-half points brought his haul to seven and emphasised that when he is freed from the bondage of injury the Mayobridge clubman is a tour de force.
“Benny is Benny,” smiled McCartan afterwards, “A class act – he took his scores well and helped to create others.”
With Liam Doyle regaining fitness and form after a long period in the wilderness, Martin Clarke providing a polished edge and with both Mark Poland and Conor Laverty, each of whom scored twice, lively and inventive, Down’s attacking resources have been consolidated.
Doyle may have scored just once but the influence of this versatile campaigner was pronounced nonetheless.
“It was good to get playing for most of the match. Maybe the fact that someone like Danny Hughes is out with injury right now has helped me to get game time and I’m grateful to be given the chance,” said Doyle, “This time last year I did not know if I would get back with Down so I am very encouraged.”
With a clutch of substitutes – Conor Maginn, Peter Fitzpatrick,
Caolan Mooney, Aidan Carr and Damien Rafferty – all clearly coveting starting places in round three manager McCartan has every reason to believe that his team’s morale, so badly fractured against Armagh, is now very much in the recovery ward.
Down: B McVeigh; A Brannigan, D Gordon, B McArdle, C Garvey, K McKernan (0-1), K Duffin, D Rooney, K King, L Doyle (0-1), M Clarke (1-2, 0-1 ‘45’), B Coulter (0-7), C Laverty (0-2), P McComiskey, M Poland (0-2, 0-1 free). Subs: C Maginn for McComiskey (51 mins), P Fitzpatrick for Duffin (41), C Mooney for Doyle (57), A Carr for Coulter (62), D Rafferty for Garvey (64).
Leitrim: C McCrann; D Reynolds, J McKeon, P Maguire, D Beck, G Reynolds, B Prior, D Lowe, D Sweeney, R Lowe (0-1), E Mulligan (0-3, 0-2 frees), C Clarke, B McDonald (0-1), J Glancy (0-1), A Croal (1-1). Subs: C Kelly (0-1) for McDonald (43 mins), C Sheridan for R Lowe (51), B McWeeney for D Reynolds (54), F Clancy for Clarke (64).
Referee: Martin Sludden (Tyrone).