Murtagh set for biggest mission
When Ronan Murtagh returned to the Down attack during the latter stages of the National Football League, manager Ross Carr had cause for some relief.
The experienced, combative Murtagh brought a cutting edge to the forward division yet was unable to help the Mournemen make the ascent into Division Two.
He may have looked particularly potent against Tipperary in last month’s Division Three final which Down lost by a point in extra-time but that was little comfort to the player whose business commitments - he operates a flourishing sub-contracting company - meant that he missed both the Gaelic Life Dr McKenna Cup and the opening segment of the league.
Now Murtagh is set to be handed a key role by Carr when Down begin their Ulster Championship campaign against Fermanagh at Enniskillen on Sunday. And if they require any additional motivation for their task, then Down need only reflect on the stunning performance they offered to outwit eventual All Ireland champions Tyrone in last year’s Ulster Championship opening round replay at Pairc Esler Newry.
Carr in particular has had good cause to dwell on that particular match - but perhaps not necessarily for the right reasons.
It is debatable if his team have scaled such heights since then in terms of skill and endeavour but obviously Carr, an All Ireland winner himself in 1991 and ’94, believes that Sunday would provide the perfect stage on which to replicate the poise and artistry that temporarily deflated Mickey Harte’s side.
“The Championship is the arena in which we are all judged. I think we showed against Tyrone last year what we were capable of in both our meetings but we were not able to sustain that level of performance. The challenge now is to push on and become a force in Ulster again. There is a great yearning within the county for success and the players are very aware of this,” states Carr.
The inclusion of Murtagh in the Down attack brings an extra dimension of craft to the unit although the fact that senior citizen Benny Coulter may not quite be at full throttle because of a troublsesome heel problem is a worry.
Nonetheless, he is likely to look to some of his Under 21 starlets such as Paul McComiskey, Conor Maginn and Jamie O’Reilly to bolster his front line against a Fermanagh defence in which Tommy McElroy, Hugh Brady and Shane Goan are likely to offer most resistance.
Indeed, Carr’s decision earlier in the year to groom several players in his senior side ultimately proved a factor in his county reaching the All Ireland Under 21 final in which they lost to Cork by a point earlier this month.
But the manager is not seeking credit for that - wht he is seeking is a fully committed display from his side at Brewster Park on Sunday.
“We might have had injury worries lately but we must now look for total committment from the players we put out against Fermanagh. This is a massive match for us. They got to the Ulster final last year and they will be very keen to make the most of their home advantage.
“We would be hoping to put out the best fifteen we have available to us but this is a squad sport and what happens during the course of a game dictates on who is used from the bench,” says Carr pointedly.