Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Down fear Armagh's orchard of fire

Down's Ryan Mallon is likely to be in midfield for tonight's league clash with Armagh

Down manager James McCartan believes that recent history is very much against his side as they prepare to go into battle against Armagh in a crucial Allianz League Division Two encounter at the Athletic Grounds tonight.

His team may have gained a fresh ration of confidence following their sterling second-half comeback against Monaghan last Sunday which saw them earn a deserved point at Pairc Esler, Newry, but McCartan still feels that statistics are not in his team's favour for a local derby that has captivated the fans.

"Armagh have the Indian sign on us as far as I can see. We might have won the odd game against them during my watch but they seem to win the important ones. They beat us in the Ulster championship and in a league final in Croke Park. Even when they were depleted they beat us by a point under lights at the Athletic Grounds a couple of years ago so the force has been with them, if you like," adds McCartan.

Down's erratic form in the league last year is one of the chief reasons why they ultimately tumbled into Division Two and McCartan clearly believes that life will not be any less fraught there.

"We have players in the team who are doing well but they have aspects of their game still to work on and if they can turn those weaknesses into strengths then they could become real star performers for us," asserts McCartan.

Armagh, he feels, will be one of several difficult hurdles that his side will have to surmount in their bid to make a prompt return to the top tier.

"When you look at Division Two, you can see Donegal, the 2012 All-Ireland champions, in there as are the current Ulster champions Monaghan. Then you have a team like Meath that is rapidly improving," says McCartan.

Brendan McArdle and Kevin McKernan are available again but Kalum King, Benny Coulter and Liam Doyle will again be absentees.

McCartan is likely to install Peter Turley alongside Ryan Mallon at midfield given that Peter Fitzpatrick is unlikely to be back in action for some weeks.

With a three-week break from league activity looming, McCartan is anxious to see his side garner three points before the lull in the competition.

"While we were happy to get a point against Monaghan, you need to be winning your home games in the league," insists McCartan.

"This Down team has a wee bit of character and this will certainly be needed against Armagh. We are faced with a conundrum – how do we bring our second-half performance from last Sunday into play for 70 minutes tonight?

"Sport is a funny old thing and things don't just happen that way."

McCartan has absorbed the debate which has taken place in relation to players being 'compensated' for having to represent their counties in Friday night games but has his own firm views on this.

"Look, if a Down player was asked to take three or four hours off work to play against Armagh in front of 7,000 or 8,000 spectators he would probably willingly do it," stresses McCartan, adding on a lighter note: "I told that to a newspaper and I thought I had chosen my words carefully and yet the headline 'McCartan and Grimley call for compensation' duly appeared. You can't win!"

Grimley, meanwhile, recalls skipper Ciaran McKeever and Caolan Rafferty to his defence while Stephen Harold starts alongside Ethan Rafferty at midfield and both Kevin Dyas and Brian Mallon are included up front.

If McCartan is apprehensive about his trip to the Athletic Grounds, then his counterpart is equally wary about this clash of neighbours.

"Down have a lot of good footballers in their side. They showed against Monaghan that they have skill and courage and they will not fear us," states Grimley.

Brian Mallon will play his 102nd game for Armagh now that he has been confirmed at right-half forward and is hopeful that the team can put the "silly mistakes" they made in drawing against Louth last week behind them.

"Our first half performance in that game was very poor except that we managed to turn things round in the second half which we did not do in going under to Tyrone last month," points out Mallon, "While we have a lot of injuries, we also have players who are very keen to nail down places in the side and that should provide an extra edge to our game tonight. Our aim will be to cut out the silly mistakes we were guilty of last Sunday."

Unsurprisingly, that's a sentiment with which his manager readily concurs.