Down GAA fans welcome beaten All Ireland finalists home
There's always next year. That’s the accepted traditional mantra of solace for any beaten All-Ireland finalists.
But of course September 2011 is a long time away and there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.
Yet today Down county board officials are reiterating with even greater enthusiasm the claim they made in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s 0-16 to 0-15 defeat to Cork that the current squad is capable of delivering ‘Sam’ next year.
And given the enthusiastic reception the side received last night when they returned home from Dublin — they were feted in Newry, Castlewellan and Longstone — it is clear this belief is shared by their thousands of fans.
County board spokesman Ronan McMahon expressed surprise and delight at the number of people who had turned out.
“This is a wonderful way of saying ‘thank you’ to the team for what they have done this year. Maybe we just missed out on the All-Ireland title but I think these players have a done a great deal towards restoring Down’s pride and status,” said McMahon.
They may not have been accompanied by the Sam Maguire Cup but the Mourne players and their manager James McCartan were hailed in style at the end of their county’s best championship campaign for 16 years.
Certainly the team has gained considerable experience and acquired an overall maturity that was not prevalent at the outset of James McCartan’s reign as manager — and bear in mind, that was just over eight months ago.
The fact too that only one player — goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh — is on the ‘wrong’ side of 30 cements the belief that the squad will remain largely intact.
Indeed, McVeigh not only proved one of Down’s defiant heroes on Sunday but he has undoubtedly thrust himself even more forcibly into the frame for an Allstar award.
Down secretary Sean Og McAteer insists the team can be an even stronger force next year.
“These players will be all the better for what they have accomplished this year and I feel they can get their just reward next term,” states McAteer.
If Down require any further motivation to go the extra mile next year, then they can derive this from Cork themselves.
In each of the last six years, Cork have reached the All-Ireland semi-finals and up until Sunday they had contested two finals in that period, losing both.
But their earnest desire to get their hands on ‘Sam’ never deserted them nor did the loyalty of their fans waver and this is what made Sunday’s triumph all the more sweet.
Even Cork boss Conor Counihan believes that it could be Down’s turn to sample the ultimate glory next year.
“They made us fight every inch of the way on Sunday and they were still going at the end.
“We maybe had that little bit more experience but Down will have taken on board a great deal from their campaign this year,” reflected Counihan.
James McCartan is rather more focused on raising the spirits of his distraught players right now but agrees that the team will have benefited from their spectacular entry into this year’s final.
“I suppose at the start of the championship we were not given much chance of making any progress but we took each game as it came along.
“Obviously we were in a strong position in the first-half on Sunday but we were unable to press home our advantage,” admits the Mourne boss.
Down’s elegant artistry, particularly their shimmying, feinting and sleight of hand, had Cork in dire trouble in the first-half but the Mournemen were unable to sustain this level of fluency for protracted spells.
Instead, Cork maximised their strong grip at midfield as the match progressed.
“We knew that this was going to be a key area and when you think of it Cork used four midfielders — Alan O’Connor, Aidan Walsh, Derek Kavanagh and Nicholas Murphy — over the course of the game and that gives an indication of the power they possess there,” points out McCartan.
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