Rebel yardstick provides measure for Down
Down and Cork. Since the 2010 All-Ireland final there's been a spark but it is not a relationship of equals. In the league last March, Down went to Páirc Uí Rinn unbeaten after three rounds believing they had Cork's measure.
They left nursing an 11-point defeat. Offered a shot at redemption in late July, the outcome was no better: another sore lesson, a 12-point mugging in the fourth round of the qualifiers at Croke Park.
Since the 2010 All-Ireland final when only a point divided them, Cork have exposed Down's shortcomings more than any other county. "I wouldn't describe it as a litmus test," former Down manager Pete McGrath says of today's challenge at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, noting it is only February. They bring some baggage all the same. Under James McCartan, Down have lost to Cork three times and odds of 4/1 were available on them winning today. In both games against Cork last year, Down mixed the sublime with the ridiculous.
In the league game, Cork's first goal came when Paudie Kissane was allowed roam deep into Down territory and lay an inviting pass into space. Pearse O'Neill ran onto it untroubled, stretching out a leg and finding the net. Down managed to absorb that blow but the second goal effectively killed their challenge in the final quarter, Colm O'Neill turning his man much too easily on the outside, cutting in and poking home. The same malaise followed Down into Croke Park later in the year. Donncha O'Connor's early goal in the qualifier was neatly worked but relied on dozy, rabbit-in-the-headlights defending. The second goal benefited from vast acres of room being conceded by a Down defence temporarily on vacation. And Cork could have scored more.
"I think Cork got a lot of confidence from winning the All-Ireland," says Danny Hughes, an All Star in 2010 and one of Down's best players in that year's All-Ireland final. "I would probably say we were on a downer. We were not back as early doing our own personal training as well. As a group, last year wasn't good enough, it was very disappointing."
Hughes also lost his mother late that year which meant he didn't return until well into January but none of the players could say they were ideally prepared. For the league game against Cork, they travelled on the same day and while they were unbeaten Hughes felt they were missing some bite. "Páirc Uí Rinn was a strange place to take us, a hurling field. We didn't get off to a great start but I know we came into the game well and in the last 15 minutes it was nearly anybody's. We went through a bad patch and, typically, we ended up leaking goals. We leaked three goals and sure that was the end of it. That is something we have to rectify, that when we go on a downer we don't leak goals."
And that has been it with Down; first-rate attacking play undone by fifth-rate defending. The third Cork goal that evening, from Paddy Kelly, came when Down had a player sent off. But the pattern of pantomime defending continued through the season and the team never achieved any degree of fluency as a result.
Beaten by Armagh in the opening round of the Ulster championship, they were blessed to escape from Ennis unscathed in the first round of the qualifiers. Clare's goal came from an unsophisticated high ball that Down failed to deal with. They almost won the match at the death with a similar route-one ploy, the ball on its way to the net until it was cleared off the goal-line.
Down's 2011 fade-out prompted an internal review and a sweep-out of the backroom team. Brian McIver and Paddy Tally were released, with Aidan O'Rourke introduced as a defensive coach. There were early instances of this new influence in the opening-round win over Ulster champions Donegal in Newry. Down tackled with great intensity and played crowded defence to good effect. O'Rourke is a coaching development officer at Queen's and was one of Kieran McGeeney's assistants last year. His appointment is a clear acknowledgement by James McCartan that if Down are to go anywhere they need to deal with their defensive frailties.
While Down have a well-earned reputation for stylish football, they realised some radical shift in their approach was needed. Against physically powerful teams they struggled, especially Cork. "Looking back at the Armagh and the Cork championship games," says Pete McGrath, "Down were beaten by two teams that were physically stronger than them. That is an issue they are now trying to address."
McGrath sees O'Rourke as playing an important role in trying to make them a harder team to beat. "I think that any team that wants to win anything has to live in the real world. If we were asked, we would like to play it the traditional Down way which is attacking, expansive play, long kicking and all that kind of thing. I think there is still leverage for that. I think it now has to be tempered so that forwards have got to defend. It is about getting the right balance."
Danny Hughes believes that they must aim to win an Ulster championship this year, last achieved in 1994. The draw hasn't been unkind, with Armagh, Tyrone and Derry on the other side. "Ulster has to be a realistic step. It's very important we have a run in Ulster, we haven't had one in quite some time, it is time we went the direct route I feel personally. I think the league is important obviously to stay in the division, and I think it is very important to get a result against one of the top teams."
Down have also struggled at midfield against Cork, evident in the All-Ireland final and again last year. Kalum King and Anton McArdle started against Cork in the qualifier match in late July but neither finished the match. King is suspended today while Peter Fitzpatrick, who played in the All-Ireland final, has gone to Australia. Ambrose Rogers' return to fitness and the redeployment of Dan Gordon in the middle has helped keep spirits up.
Of the five changes in the team that lost to Cork in Croke Park in 2011 from the previous September's All-Ireland final line-up, four were substituted. In the course of last year Down experimented more than most and used 53 players. Hughes feels that was in marked contrast from the previous year where there was greater stability. But a certain amount of change was needed and now they have to deal with life after Martin Clarke, who has returned to Australia, while Peter Murtagh and John Clarke have retired.
"I think in 2010 there may be a case for saying that Down overachieved," says McGrath. "Last year was an anti-climax. But in the league against the three big guns, Cork, Kerry and Dublin, they fell short. It
was pretty obvious to people watching, and by their own admission, that their physical conditioning wasn't terribly convincing and James McCartan has said maybe they were not has fit as they should have been. They did not get enough quality work done pre-season, they have certainly addressed that this year; they have worked very hard."
Hughes played against Aidan O'Rourke and while he had a lot of time for McIver and Tally he appreciates the need to tighten up defensively. "End of the day it's a results business and if we get results, that is the only thing that matters. I don't care what it takes. I just want to be successful. Aidan is a very good coach and very tactically aware. I think defence is very important but knowing James (McCartan), as an attacking man himself, we will not lose that ability."
The return of Liam Doyle with a man of the match performance at centre-back against Donegal has given Down an added lift but he is so injury-prone they can't say with certainty that his legs will hold up. The win over Donegal has given them early impetus though ahead of today's steep climb.
"I know if I was managing the team I would be looking at every game as an opportunity for assessment, evaluation, where we are at," says McGrath. "It's an important game. I don't think it will have any more significance than if the match was against Kerry or Dublin. Any away game in the league you will learn about players.
"People aren't falling over with expectation about the team's prospects this year. Given what happened in 2010 and then the disappointment of last year, it's like bated breath: we're not sure what the season might bring."