Down hungry to net revenge
Published 05/06/2013 | 08:00
Back in late January, Down veteran Benny Coulter looked ahead to another year mixing it with the high-rollers in another Division One campaign, and took a very different view of league football.
"If it took being relegated," he began, "so be it as long as we are ready for the Championship and we knew our gameplan, knew what everybody was doing instead of going out getting two points here and there, saying we stayed in Division One but we haven't got a system in place. We are going to have to look at that rather than concentrating on staying in that division."
It was a novel and highly-unusual opinion for a Gaelic footballer to hold, but given that he was entering into his 14th season for Down, perhaps he had more right than anyone else to see it in his own logic.
After an easy win over Fermanagh in the first round and then a roller-coaster second-half comeback in the Ulster semi-final against Monaghan last year, Down came up against Donegal; a footballing manifestation of the appliance of science.
Although Down troubled them in the early stages, Donegal did what they have done to many others since, gradually squeezing the life out of them, finishing with 11 points between the sides by the final whistle.
In Sunday's win over Derry, we saw the system that Down wish to implement. In the first half they could not get to grips with Eoin Bradley, Peter Turley's sweeping role was not nailed down, and the ability of Bradley and James Kielt to kick points from distance beat the blanket.
In the second half – albeit aided by Bradley playing a more withdrawn role – Down held Derry to five points as they manufactured a nine-point swing.
It's that kind of form and thinking they will need to bring with them for the Ulster semi-final on June 23, when they meet again with Donegal. "Conceding 1-15 is not going to do against Donegal," was the assessment of Mark Poland after Sunday's win.
"I know that we got 2-17 but we put pressure on ourselves. I think it showed in the end, especially the boys who came off the bench; a lot of newcomers to Championship football and with the turnover of players we have had over the past two or three years ... I don't think there is a county in Ireland would keep doing what we are doing."
Paying tribute to his manager James McCartan, the Down captain continued: "Fair dues to Wee James. If we had have got beat there he would have been slated but you see the performance and the fitness in the legs. Another 10 or 15 minutes more we would have plugged on too so fair play to James for that."
While McCartan's reaction to the prospect of facing the All-Ireland champions was a characteristically wise-cracking "yippee", Poland is not interested in taking shortcuts.
"They are a team that you want to be pitting yourself against," he added. "Derry might look at us in three weeks time and wish they were there too. That's what you play football for, you are there to compete against those teams, some of the best players in Ireland."
One of the most impressive facets of Down's win was the way in which they increased the intensity as Derry began nibbling at their lead towards the end. Kevin McKernan then produced two points that bore all the hallmarks of supreme conditioning, as well as polished skills, dashing up from his own half twice to land points with the outside of the boot.
Poland credited that to the new training regime under Professor Niall Moyna of DCU. And while their bodies are becoming more durable, he also spoke of the transformation in mentality and attitude they began in January.
"Maybe last year we were a bit soft – this year we're not soft," said Poland. "If anyone's stepping out of line they'll be told that. If they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing on the field, off the field, they'll be told that.
"There can't be any excuses this year. You're representing a lot of people and you're representing a very proud county.
"That pride has been dented this last couple of years and it can't happen, it can't go on. If you want to succeed you have to be like Donegal – do whatever it takes to win."
The testament of Donegal players tells us they have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of excellence, and this is the next hurdle for Down.
"As I said at the start of the year, we have a different approach this year no matter who is out on the field," Poland concluded. A lot of thinking to be done, between now and June 23.