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Down to seize chance in early start

By John Campbell

It's the one match that every Ulster county is keen to avoid – being first up in the provincial championship.

The preliminary round tie invariably triggers apprehension, uncertainty, fear even as the protagonists prepare to set the ball rolling.

Involvement in the opener automatically provides confirmation that should either of the competing teams harbour viable aspirations of claiming the title, then they are going to have to achieve their goal the hard way.

Last year the dubious distinction fell to Cavan and Armagh and the Orchard County's surrender saw them ushered into the qualifiers where they subsequently lost to Galway while Cavan in contrast strode on before being ambushed by the wiles of Kerry.

This year Tyrone host Down in the preliminary round of the Ulster series on Sunday week and for the Mourne side it's a double burden. Not only do they find themselves already confronted by an extended itinerary in their bid to end a 20-year title famine but their first engagement will take place in the intimidating confines of Healy Park, Omagh.

No wonder James McCartan, anxious to see Down restored to the provincial seat of power at the fifth time of asking under his watch, must think that good fortune has deserted him.

He certainly thought along those lines earlier in the year when a raft of injuries prevented him from fielding anything like his strongest side in the league.

It was lack of strength in depth as much as anything else that saw Down bring the curtain down on their league programme by losing to Laois and Meath, defeats that put paid to their prospects of stepping back up into Division One.

Ironically, Down beat Donegal and drew with Monaghan, the two teams who gained promotion and contested last Sunday's Division Two final in Croke Park.

"We were not able to get enough consistency in the league. There were factors that contributed to this but the championship is a whole new ball game. The fact that we are in the preliminary round means an early start for us but we have been preparing well," observes McCartan.

But the absence of meaningful silverware persists like an irritating toothache.

Down have watched from the wings as Tyrone and Armagh have hoovered up Ulster titles over recent years – something that has been hard to take for a county which boasts more All-Ireland titles than the two combined.

In his first year in charge (2010), McCartan steered Down into the All-Ireland final in which they lost by a hair's breadth to Cork, 0-16 to 0-15, and then there was that Ulster final appearance in 2012 in which Donegal reigned supreme to a somewhat embarrassing extent, 2-18 to 0-13.

McCartan can take considerable comfort from a litany of plus-factors.

Kevin McKernan is in superlative form for Burren, Ambrose Rogers bagged 2-4 for Longstone in a recent club game, Peter Turley continues to wield a big influence for Downpatrick, Niall Madine just gets better and Donal O'Hare can be relied upon to extract maximum dividends through his free-kicking ability.

True, Ryan Mallon is a loss now that he is working on the continent, Dan Gordon and Liam Doyle are still shy of championship-standard fitness and Brendan Coulter is not quite the automatic first-choice player that he was.

Mark Poland, though, is exhibiting herculean qualities of leadership, Brendan McArdle and Aidan Carr form a stoic spine, Conor Maginn and Conor Laverty can trouble the best rearguards and Jerome Johnston's talent can burst to the surface.

While Tyrone represent a huge challenge for his side, McCartan may just manage to elicit a smile from the gods this time round.

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