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Burns is determined to put new spring in the Down step

By John Campbell

Just as the battle for this year's All-Ireland football title was hotting up, Down were beginning to take stock of a season - if you could call it that - which had delivered only heartbreak.

An excruciatingly painful Allianz League campaign brought demotion to Division Two, the team's Ulster Championship hopes floundered on the back of a sound thrashing by Monaghan (2-22 to 0-9) and the ultimate embarrassment came at the hands of an average Longford side in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

In the seven-month spell prior to their banishment from the championship landscape, Down achieved just one victory - a modest success against a limited St Mary's University College side in the McKenna Cup.

Such a track record, it was thought, would see manager Eamonn Burns quietly slip through the exit door, his tremendous personal achievements as a Down player that embraced two All-Ireland medals suddenly overshadowed by a sequence of results that left his county marooned on the rocks.

Yet chairman Sean Rooney and the county board were somewhat removed from pressing the panic button. A detailed analysis of the team's itinerary saw certain positives rather than obvious negatives highlighted and Burns was given the green light to retain his hand on the tiller for another year.

This weekend he will fling himself more forcibly into the huge challenge that awaits in 2017 by applying the finishing touches to his preparations for the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup as a precursor to plotting what he hopes will be a successful route through Division Two.

It's a tall order for a man who has been an outstanding servant to Down and whose composure, demeanour and courtesy helped to sustain him even when he was swimming feverishly against the tide.

If Burns sought comfort from influential quarters, then it has come from the people who matter most - the players themselves.

Kevin McKernan's obvious enthusiasm to see Down's fortunes revived, ex-captain Mark Poland's willingness to commit to the cause again and the desire of Brendan McArdle to resurrect his career at the age of 29 perhaps give a stronger insight into the rapport which Burns enjoys with his players than any bland appraisal from other sources.

McArdle, very much Down to the core, is strongly focused on making up for lost time by becoming a regular again in the famous red and black jersey.

"I have had an Achilles problem that has troubled me for the last 18 months and I am now very keen to get back out there with the boys," says McArdle,

"The fact of the matter is that Down did not beat one other county team this year and that just does not sit well with the players."

In a sport that is becoming increasingly defined by small margins, manager Burns himself is philosophical as he prepares to put his shoulder to the wheel for another term.

"We have to be honest with ourselves and admit that in some games we were not good enough and in other instances we did not get the breaks," reflects Burns.

"I have always maintained that Down have good players but the challenge is to get the best possible 15 out onto the pitch on any given day. That's the key."

Down's win over St Mary's last January was the only flicker of light in a gloomy season that saw the side lose their other eleven games spanning all competitions.

The Mournemen will meet Queen's University at Downpatrick in their opening McKenna Cup fixture on Sunday week.

They will then face Derry at Pairc Esler, Newry on Sunday January 15 before taking on Armagh at the Athletic Grounds on Wednesday January 18.

Belfast Telegraph

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