Fired-up Down aim to outgun Antrim in final shootout
Down hurling manager Michael Johnston believes his team will be afforded a great opportunity to strike a blow on behalf of the sport in Ulster when they meet Antrim in the senior provincial final at Owenbeg tomorrow.
Johnston, clearly frustrated that his side failed to fare better in the recent Christy Ring Cup and conscious that Antrim are in the decider without striking a ball in anger, is keen to see his side play their part in making the decider a worthy showpiece.
In contrast to Antrim's automatic entry to hurling's biggest game in this part of the world, Down were forced to unleash unbounded commitment and considerable scoring power to see off both Armagh and Derry.
In overcoming Armagh by 5-20 to 3-14 and Derry by 3-16 to 1-17, Down dutifully booked their place in what could prove to be a fascinating shoot-out but in the process they leaked far too many scores for comfort. Indeed, the concession of 4-31 in the two matches has provided manager Johnston with considerable food for thought in the interim.
Now the Down rearguard will come up against an Antrim attack in which an infusion of young blood will test their mettle. Johnston will look to Conor Woods and Sean Ennis in particular to lead his side's resistance against the Saffrons.
While disappointed with his team's failure to achieve success in the Christy Ring Cup, the Down boss remains upbeat ahead of tomorrow's showdown.
"I think that the Christy Ring Cup is a stacked deck. Kerry won it with Tipperary men hurling for them and when Armagh played Roscommon there were Galway men lining out for Roscommon," points out Johnston.
"At least the Ulster Championship is more of a level playing field and we know where we are. Antrim may have dropped into the Christy Ring Cup but they will be very keen to retain their Ulster title."
Belfast man Johnston, who formerly managed Armagh, took over from Gerard Monan in Down towards the end of last year and brought in Michael McCullough as coach.
Danny Toner, Gareth 'Magic' Johnston, Stephen Dineen, Caolan Bailie and James Coyle are key figures in a Down attack that has been flourishing of late but on Sunday they will confront an Antrim defence bolstered by experienced trio Aaron Graffin, Neal Mcauley and Conor McKinley. Up front Kevin Ryan's side contains some fresh new talent with long-serving Neil McManus still a central figure.