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Future not so black as McKernan rallies his troops

 

By John Campbell

His team may have been bushwhacked by Tyrone in the Ulster final earlier this month but Down boss Eamonn Burns has no intention of wallowing in apprehension in advance of Saturday's mammoth meeting with Monaghan in Round 4B of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

The rescinding of the black card Kevin McKernan incurred against the Red Hands, Donal O'Hare's return to full fitness, Niall McParland's impressive form since his introduction to the defence in place of the unavailable Ryan McAleenan and the intense hunger of a raft of players who have had to be content with substitute roles lately to make the Croke Park starting line-up all serve to rekindle the flame of ambition.

McKernan, the only link in the current starting team from the line-up that fell to Cork in the 2010 All-Ireland final, perhaps best epitomises the resolve in the Down camp. Hardly has confirmation of his green light to take part in the re-match with Monaghan been received than McKernan, who won a Sigerson Cup medal with St Mary's earlier in the year, is busily helping to fuel the fire for Sunday's contest.

"I think we put pride back into the Down jersey by the way in which we played against Monaghan and although we lost our way a bit against Tyrone, I believe the challenge for us now is to replicate the qualities in the Ulster semi-final at Croke Park on Saturday," insists McKernan. "We need to do this if we are to have any chance of making it into the All-Ireland quarter-finals."

When many of the more celebrated analysts were making their traditional assessments as to just which sides would make it through to the last 12 of the All-Ireland championship, Down were conspicuous by their absence.

Yet here they are in the last ten, 70-plus minutes away from a quarter-final place with manager Eamonn Burns maintaining his positive stance.

"We have had niggles here and there which has denied us different players since the start of the league never mind the championship, but several boys like Jerome Johnston and Donal O'Hare have come back into the frame and they have definitely helped our cause," points out Burns.

For one Down man, though, the weekend brought a bitter-sweet experience. Ciaran Branagan was hailed for his performance in taking charge of the pulsating All-Ireland qualifier between Mayo and Cork but came under fire in some quarters for blowing the match up 30 seconds early when there was one point between the sides.

Yet although Branagan was criticised on social media, Cork manager Peader Healy, who stepped down in the aftermath of his side's heart-breaking 0-27 to 2-20 defeat, said that he had "no problem" with what had occurred.

"I thought the referee did a good job in the circumstances," he said.

And Healy certainly lent further substance to the growing belief that in the not too distant future the GAA authorities may well have to countenance the prospect of having full-time managers.

"At senior inter-county level, you just need to devote your life to it," said Healy.

"That's the way it's going, especially when you're on the managerial side of it. It's that professional.

"You'd either want to be retired or a teacher and off for the summer. You just need a lot of time for this job."

Cillian O'Connor scored 0-11 for Mayo who survived by the skin of their teeth and will now meet Roscommon with Kerry and Galway going head to head in next weekend's other quarter-final.

The other two quarter-finals will take place on August 5 and will see Tyrone and Dublin going into action against the winners of next Saturday's Round 4B qualifiers.

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