Plugging the gaps is Down’s new goal
Down conceded nine goals in their eight games in the Allianz Football League — and six of these were in their two ties against Cork.
It’s this stark statistic that will now provide the framework for much of the team’s preparatory work for the Ulster Championship in which they will meet buoyant Fermanagh at Brewster Park, Enniskillen on June 3.
Manager James McCartan has amended his rearguard from time to time since the start of the year but the ongoing absence of Damien Rafferty and Declan Rooney has been sorely felt.
Now McCartan, with experienced full-back Dan Gordon a major doubt for the clash with the Ernesiders, could be forced into a major re-shuffle as he seeks to fill the gaps that were so clinically exposed by Cork on Sunday.
The erratic nature of his team’s defensive alignment is a major source of concern to the Down boss right now. They did not concede a goal against either Mayo or Kerry both of whom contested the other league semi-final yet when they travelled to Cork the Mournemen conceded four while the two ‘gifts’ which they donated to the Leesiders at the weekend underscored their victory.
Daniel McCartan, Brendan McArdle and Damien Turley formed the full-back line on Sunday but they had no answer to the poise and authority of Colm O’Neill in particular in the Cork full-forward line nor could the Down half-back line of Kevin McKernan, Niall McParland and Conor Garvey contain the mazy running and smart distribution of dynamic wing-forward Paul Kerrigan.
If Down are to have any chance of ending their recent lack of Ulster titles — which stretches back to 1994 — then the implementation of a safety-first policy is crucial to their prospects.
Managers, James McCartan among them, often make the point that if their team can score more than the opposition, then that is all that matters.
Up to a point, this theory holds water. But the concession of a goal, particularly in the early stages of a major championship tie, can serve to destabilise a side.
It can mean replacing a player or players, reconstructing a defensive unit and perhaps bringing back a half-forward to act as sweeper. All this can discomfit a team, especially if training and preparation have been undertaken with a particular formation and game plan in mind.
Goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh’s uncharacteristic gaffe when he mishandled a high, hopeful, punt and allowed lurking midfield ace Alan O’Connor to snap up an out of the blue goal was the straw that broke the camel’s back from Down’s perspective on Sunday.
Yet the long-serving 32-year-old custodian has often in the past contributed to many Down victories because of his athleticism and shot-stopping ability and is unlikely to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
Down’s current severe injury worries, that shattering Croke Park experience on Sunday and Fermanagh’s feisty renaissance under Peter Canavan’s capable baton have combined to add a whole new dimension to the forthcoming Ulster Championship meeting between the sides.
Down are a proud county — five All-Ireland titles testify to an enviable tradition — but right now the team, while not quite on their knees, are unsteady on their feet.
It will take all of McCartan’s expertise and guile and the commitment and pride of his entire squad if the Ulster Championship is to provide a haven of comfort.