Joe Kernan: Some day, Sam Maguire will come back to Down
It has often been said that a team must learn how to lose an All-Ireland final before they can fully appreciate the achievement of winning one.
If this is the case, then Down have already served their apprenticeship in terms of getting their hands on the Sam Maguire Cup.
It is abundantly clear that James McCartan’s men are bearing a serious hurt this week — and to me that is a very encouraging sign. Indeed, if there was no hurt in the Mourne camp right now, then I for one would be questioning the attitude of these players.
But there is no necessity for me to do that. Any team that can reach an All-Ireland final after losing the Division Two decider in the National League and an Ulster Championship semi-final within a matter of weeks must surely be made of stern stuff.
If Down’s league eclipse by neighbours Armagh in Croke Park back in April was perceived to be nothing more than a temporary blip, then their collapse against Tyrone after an encouraging start against Donegal in the Ulster series undoubtedly posed a major question mark against their character, resolve and skill.
At that juncture, the world and his wife knew that Tyrone would win the Ulster Championship even though Monaghan were making optimistic noises but very few could have guessed to what extent James McCartan’s side would journey down the Championship road.
While the players themselves have rekindled the pride and style that have been the hallmarks of Down’s psyche in the past, the motivational skills of McCartan and his management team of Paddy Tally, Brian McIver and Jerome Johnston have been nothing short of superb in my book.
They picked their squad up from the floor following that Tyrone setback, dusted them down and sent them into battle again with the message that one bad day at the Championship office should not be allowed to undermine a season.
How those players responded! Maybe the team failed to negotiate the final hurdle last Sunday but they have done more than enough to suggest that they will continue to rub shoulders with the elite for some time to come.
They will have absorbed valuable lessons, too. The absolute necessity for midfield dominance or at the very least parity of esteem, the need to convert even half-chances, the importance of maintaining momentum when a degree of control has been achieved — these key elements were forcibly driven home to Down.
They will know now too that attendance at pre-final gatherings of any sort merely serves as a distraction rather than a source of encouragement for the job in hand. Sponsors and others may be disappointed if the players suddenly become unavailable for extra-curricular activities but a winning mind-set must not be exposed to distractions of any sort.
All successful sides require an element of luck, too. The absence of their skipper Ambrose Rogers through injury impacted savagely on Down’s midfield mechanism — had the Longstone man been in the thick of the action I doubt if Aidan Walsh, below-par in Cork’s hard-earned semi-final victory over Dublin, would have emerged as the man of the match.
As if the loss of Rogers was not a sufficient slice of ill-luck, the misfortune that struck Down in the dying moments when possession was lost under the Hogan Stand that allowed Cork the luxury of a late free instead of finding themselves facing a potentially productive counter-attack was nothing short of heartbreaking.
When Down reflect more fully on their Championship run they will take considerable satisfaction from their displays all along the line. But now that they have attained new status they will find they are under even bigger pressure to deliver. They will be meeting teams like Dublin, Cork, Mayo, Galway — and, yes, neighbours Armagh — in Division One of the National League.
If that is not ideal preparation for a concerted assault on the All-Ireland title then I don’t know what is.
And while it was a case of so near yet so far for Down, Tyrone landed their second All Ireland Minor title in just three years. Manager Raymond Munroe has stepped down but if he does not take over the reins of the Under 21 side, then there will be a queue of clubs and maybe some senior county teams keen to acquire his services.