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Fear just isn't an option for a battle-hardened Down

By Declan Bogue

When television producers look for clips to use for their end-of-programme 'sports-action-set-to-an-uplifting-contemporary-choon' section, a lad like Paul McComiskey comes in handy.

Back in 2008, he already had a year of inter-county football under his belt and the Down joint-management of Ross Carr and DJ Kane clearly had big plans for him.

He was warming up on the touchline of Healy Park, waiting to come on against Tyrone in the Ulster Championship quarter-final, when a camera on a boom (oh yeah, the Celtic Tiger was still roaring loudly back then alright) swept past for a glimpse at his chiselled good looks.

What does McComiskey do? Gives the camera a big wink.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I can't see a Cavan player staring directly down the lens and giving the camera the old 'How you doin'?' thing. Nor anyone from any other Ulster county.

But that's Down for you. We've made it to the sixth paragraph without mentioning the word 'swagger', but sure it's forcing its way into the copy whether I like it or not.

On that lovely day in Omagh, Tyrone burned blisters onto their guests, Collie McCullagh and Sean Cavanagh goaling as they ran up 2-3 to 0-2 in the first quarter.

Benny Coulter in scoring one goal and creating another for Ambrose Rogers soon had them back on speaking terms. Down brought them back to Newry a week later and the defining score came when Aidan Carr lobbed in a diagonal ball to the far post. Ryan McMenamin fumbled the catch and Coulter was onto it like a cobra, punching to the net to win the game in extra-time.

Let us remind you, Tyrone won that year's All-Ireland final. As they did in 2003.

Before all that, though, they met Down in an Ulster final. They found themselves nine points down and Peter Canavan had to dash to the sideline to take regular gulps of his inhaler to alleviate his chronic asthma on a choking hot day.

A little bit of gamesmanship saved Tyrone.

Brian McGuigan tripped Down midfielder Gregory McCartan as he went to take a free. McCartan got up and reefed the ball off McGuigan's head, receiving a red card for his troubles.

As a manager, Mickey Harte had guided Errigal Ciaran in the previous winter's Ulster Club Championship. They found themselves down by seven points to Crossmaglen, a team full of freshly-minted All-Ireland champions in the McEntees, Bellews, McConvilles, Donaldsons and so on, in both Healy Park and Oliver Plunkett Park as they met three times altogether and eventually came out on top.

With several Errigal men on the 2003 Tyrone panel, they had no difficulty in reeling in a deficit. They fought hard for their replay and made no mistake the next day.

And in 2014, Down fetched up to Healy Park showing no real form to take on the side that had reached the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final. They scored 2-3 in an eight-minute spell to go in front with nine minutes left. Two late frees from Cavanagh ensured the Red Hands would fight another day, and they won the replay.

Every side has teams they like to avoid and with a track record like that, Tyrone are clearly uncomfortable with the Mournemen.

There are historic reasons for this. The 1950s was the decade of all change in Ulster football. Cavan had been fading by the time Tyrone swept up their first two Anglo-Celt Cups in 1956 and '57. Derry came along a year later, won their first provincial crown and went on to the All-Ireland final.

And 1959 was the second year of Maurice Hayes and company's five-year plan as Down won their first Ulster title. However, in going on to win the Sam Maguire in 1960 and '61, they gained an assurance about themselves that has been passed down in the DNA of the county.

If you were to compare them with other counties in terms of their belief system, it is a combination of Cork hurlers and Kerry footballers. They have the in-built superiority of the Kerrymen, with the unwavering belief that on their day they can win it all, just like Cork, mushrooming overnight.

And there are others in the province that recognise it. Enda McGinley recalls one of the first training sessions he had after arriving at University of Ulster, Jordanstown. His manager was former Derry player Damian Barton, who pulled McGinley aside one day to wax lyrical about the abilities of another player. A Down man.

"There's just something about a Down footballer, isn't there Enda?" he said to McGinley's bristling disapproval, but deep-down acknowledgement.

So, Down will rock up to Clones for the Ulster final against Tyrone on Sunday with no weight of expectation on their shoulders. They will be battle-hardened after their duels with Armagh and Monaghan.

And they will face an opposition that can be considered under-cooked, having routed a hapless Derry team and a Donegal side in the throes of growing pains.

Picking a winner? You first.

Belfast Telegraph

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