Down manager James McCartan has more reason than most to see his side reach the semi-finals of the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup.
The Mourne county will host neighbours Armagh at Pairc Esler, Newry tomorrow in what will be their second and last scheduled match in the competition.
But with a testing campaign in Division One of the Allianz League due to commence at the start of next month, McCartan is anxious to see his side see as much action as possible in the interim.
The withdrawal of Queen’s from the McKenna Cup means that Down’s only two fixtures were against Cavan, whom they have already beaten, and Armagh who will travel to Newry anxious to atone for their home defeat to Cavan at the weekend.
Of even greater concern to McCartan is the fact that Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes are still some way off full fitness while Conor Garvey had to be substituted after just 15 minutes in the game against Terry Hyland’s Breffni side.
Although McCartan took heart from the encouraging performances of newcomers such as Ryan Kelly, Danny Savage, David McKibben and Michael Cunningham, he is keen to see his more experienced foot-soldiers restored to the ranks for the league which
will encompass matches against teams like Dublin, Cork, Kerry and All-Ireland champions Donegal.
“Obviously as a manager you like to have your best players at your disposal. But we have to be patient, we don’t want to rush people.
“There is a long season ahead and while we were grateful to take the win over Cavan, we realise we have a lot of work to do,” stated McCartan.
The return of Paul McComiskey to his side after a lengthy absence, the continuing commitment of the ageless Benny Coulter, the versatility of Kevin McKernan and the fact that Brendan McArdle is fully fit again are plus-factors which help to smooth the path going into the league.
But McCartan is aware that Down will need to be very close to full strength if they are to have any chance of making an impact in the league.
“We have managed to retain our Division One status for some years now and while that is pleasing we would obviously like to complement this with some sort of championship success. I suppose you could say that this is the real barometer by which all teams are judged and we have to accept this,” admits McCartan.
He steered Down into the All -Ireland final in his first year in charge in 2010 when they were beaten by Cork (0-16 to 0-15) but over the course of the past two years the Mournemen have not quite been able to build on that progress.