Joe Kernan: Past glories at Croke Park can give Down crucial edge
At the outset of the All-Ireland football championship every team harbours its own particular hopes and ambitions.
For some, these are of a modest nature — a first round provincial win, for instance, or the aspiration of a decent run in the qualifiers.
For other teams, perhaps few in number, the magnetic appeal of an appearance in the All Ireland final can elicit performances rich in endeavour, high on skill and garnished with pride and character.
Two such teams are Donegal and Down yet they have reached the last eight of the All-Ireland series by journeying via rather different routes.
While Donegal have chalked up impressive Ulster Championship wins over Cavan, Derry, Tyrone and Down to set up their alluring All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry on Sunday, Down have negotiated a route that has been spliced with pot-holes up until now.
They made heavy weather of overcoming Fermanagh in their Ulster championship opener and then found themselves nine points adrift against Monaghan in the semi-final before recovering to inch over the line by the narrowest of margins.
And that took them into the Ulster final where they suffered a mauling from Donegal that left them physically drained and psychologically shattered.
Yet they showed strength of character in beating Tipperary, just six days after their chastening experience at the hands of Jim McGuinness’s red-hot side.
That’s why James McCartan’s men will embark on their mission against Mayo with confidence considerably boosted and their hunger sharpened.
McCartan has had more than his fair share of injuries to cope with and Danny Hughes is a big doubt for Saturday because of his groin problem. Yet Ambrose Rogers, Dan Gordon, Benny Coulter and Mark Poland are capable of setting the tone for what I think will be a comprehensive display against a Mayo outfit which, like their predecessors, may look vulnerable at Croke Park.
Down in contrast have reserved some of their best displays of the last two years for that venue, it must be remembered. What about that stunning performance against Kerry when Martin Clarke ran the show in imperious fashion and that wholehearted performance against Cork in the 2010 All Ireland title when they lost by the narrowest of margins?
Down will take heart from these displays as they prepare for Saturday’s confrontation with a side that under James Horan has acquired a cutting edge and an appetite for physicality which the Mournemen will be expected to match.
I fancy though that the physical exchanges between Donegal and Kerry will be even more intense and draining.
Kerry boss Jack O’Connor has already expressed the hope that his old boys will have the legs for battle, conscious that should Donegal get into their stride they have the capacity to run them off their feet.
O’Connor will have his homework done just as Jim McGuinness will have dissected every nuance of Kerry’s make-up in his thorough approach to his task.
Donegal have played some superb football this summer and in the process totted up high scores but while McGuinness candidly admits that Tyrone gave his side “their biggest tactical test” in that riveting Ulster semi-final he is aware that Kerry will be an even more demanding proposition especially now that they have got the bit between their teeth again.
Yet Donegal look a more rounded side this year. They have shaken off their inhibitions and have shown that they can mix the long and the short game depending on what course the action is taking.
In Frank McGlynn, Mark McHugh and Karl Lacey they have to my mind three of the best players in the country with McHugh not only an extra defender but a key catalyst in their attacking machinery.
Just how O’Connor plans to combat Donegal’s efficiency remains to be seen but one thing is certain — he won’t be outwitted.
His side have just managed to get one monkey off their backs following that rare win over Tyrone and they will not want to be ambushed by another Ulster side who were still in short pants while they were amassing All-Ireland titles.
The past will count for little on Sunday, instead, it’s what the current line-ups have to offer.
I would venture to suggest that rarely in recent times will we have such quality on parade in the one game. Even the most lukewarm GAA follower cannot fail to be excited by the fare that will be on offer.
It is a well-worn cliché but the cream rises to the top at the business end of the season. And you can take it as read that some very important business will be transacted at HQ on Saturday and Sunday.