Conor Toner can strengthen Down's Ulster challenge
Down manager James McCartan has been handed another midfield option as he intensifies his team's preparations for the Ulster Championship opener against Tyrone on May 18.
Burren clubman Conor Toner hopes to strengthen his credentials in the All-County League over the next three weeks in order to convince McCartan that he could have a part to play against the Red Hands.
Toner was drafted in as a substitute in Down's final league game, the defeat to Laois at Portlaoise, but did enough within a limited time-span to suggest that he has more to offer.
With Ryan Mallon having left for Brussels where he will be based for some months, and Kalum King still not fully involved in championship preparations, McCartan is seeking to boost his midfield ammunition.
The experienced Peter Turley and Brendan McKernan are in pole position to start against Tyrone, although Peter Fitzpatrick could also be in the selection frame.
Both Turley and McKernan in particular have provided the kind of spirit, attitude and unflinching work-rate that Down require if they are to finally emerge from the Championship shadows.
Toner's bid for recognition will certainly serve to further ignite competition for starting places in an area of the park that McCartan sees as absolutely crucial given the current form of the Cavanagh brothers Sean and Colm for Tyrone.
Conor Laverty, who missed Down's match against Laois, made a sparkling return to club action when he triggered Kilcoo's win over Burren at the weekend, while Jerome Johnston, who has progressed in the county colours this year, was also on song in that game.
McCartan, too, can take comfort from the fact that Donal O'Hare is likely to emerge as top scorer in Division Two, even though the final between Monaghan and Donegal is due to be played on Sunday week at Croke Park.
Niall Madine, who made his Championship debut against Derry last year, has matured into a fine player up front while skipper Mark Poland is leading by splendid example.
From the side that met Derry in the Ulster Championship quarter-final against Derry last year, only King could be an absentee this time round.
Johnston, Shea McArdle, Connaire Harrison, Danny Savage and Paul Devlin have impressed in their rather infrequent league appearances, but McCartan is very aware of their value to his side.
Johnston and Devlin in particular are quality forwards who can both take and make scores while Harrison showed his form earlier in the league.
On occasions this term, McCartan has been forced to make do and mend but now that the Championship is just round the corner, he is anxious to have a full hand from which to deal.
"At this point in time, it is a question of having as many players on board as possible," states McCartan. "The Ulster Championship takes things up to the next level and while most managers will have a fair idea of just how their sides will line up, there are always a few positions that will provide extra food for thought.
"We will have league games within the county up until 13 days before the game against Tyrone and the hope is that we will avoid injuries."
Declan Rooney, who formerly captained Down, is challenging for a place in the starting line-up against Tyrone in a defence in which Brendan McArdle, Aidan Carr and Ryan Boyle were consistent over the course of the league.
Carr commenced his county career at wing-forward but following the long-term injury suffered by Liam Doyle, he was drafted into the centre of the defence and remains a solid figure there.
His reading and distribution are first-class while he also offers Down an extra option as a long-range free-taker – something that manager McCartan appreciates.
"The more experience we can have on board the better. Tyrone may not have reached the league semi-finals but they are a good side with some very sharp forwards up front," maintains McCartan.