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Respect is clear for all to see in the battle to lift glittering prize

 

By Declan Bogue

The boys in red and black are back, goes the old song, and there are plenty of Down fans willing to throw up the bunting this week.

Eight days out from the Ulster Senior Football final against Tyrone and Eamonn Burns, the reluctant figurehead of Down football, is happy for the fans to enjoy themselves while his players get on with business.

"It's something you embrace," he said in that relaxed way of his. "The hype is possibly a bit more intense in Down because Down's last final was 2012, five years ago. Tyrone have been there the last number of years, they are Ulster champions so it is going to be different.

"It's probably more of a new experience for the Down kids who haven't been there before. We probably wouldn't have expected to get this far in the Championship. Against all the odds we are now in an Ulster final and it generates great enthusiasm and excitement among fans young and old.

"Everybody is looking forward to it. You can see kids with Down jerseys on and the colours are out. I am sure they are looking forward to it as much as the parents are."

Burns wouldn't need to have spies in Tyrone to know that they don't do hype ahead of an Ulster final. Not since the 1990s has the county been swept up in the fuss ahead of a provincial decider and their manager Mickey Harte feels something is lost with that.

"That's maybe what happens in Tyrone," he sighed at the Ulster Council's final launch in the Armagh City Hotel.

"They were kind of spoiled in the Noughties and got excited about things when it came to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. And those days are gone now, they don't happen as often these days as they happened in that particular decade.

"I would love to see people in Tyrone get excited about Ulster finals and see the colour that can exist in the county. But for the last number of years that hasn't been the case."

However, that wasn't the case in last year's final. On a baking hot Clones day, Red Hand supporters flooded the pitch in a celebration that felt powerful, raw, emotional.

"I think that was a result of the seven-year absence of being in the final," explained Harte. "I had flagged it up that we won it in 2009 and 2010 and not two people came onto the field, because they just took it for granted.

"That was on the back of three All-Irelands and people didn't seem to appreciate what it took to win an Ulster title, and we should do that in Tyrone. We haven't an abundance of them and up into recent times, we have added more. There was a lot of time when we only had a handful of Ulster titles to boast of."

In years past, the Ulster Council have hosted these kind of events and it wasn't hard to detect a put-on civility between the managers. However, Burns and Harte are friends from way back, when the latter topped up a couple of teaching qualifications in St Mary's and the former was starting on his own teaching path.

Harte said: "He's a really nice man, that's the truth of the matter. There are no airs or graces to him. He is a genuine character and I am very fond of him. Not that I know him that well, but I have found him most affable any time we have met."

It's noticeable how Burns' demeanour on the sideline matches Harte's. The fourth official in Clones will not have to worry about the potential of a sideline fracas with two very Zen-like coaches calling the shots.

In the past, Harte has explained his sideline stance - arms folded, baseball cap pulled down tight. By that stage, all the coaching has been done. You have to trust in your players to deliver on the pitch. Burns clearly is an advocate.

Harte added: "He (Burns) doesn't get alarmed on the sideline and I think he is sending that sense of composure onto his players. They benefit from that too."

But still, Burns explained: "I would be very passionate about Down football.

"I grew up in it, I played in it when Down were going really well in the 1990s so I would be used to that angle of things, where you obviously had to be calm, controlled and make sure that you were doing what you were supposed to be doing at that time.

"It's slightly different when you are a manager in that I am not looking after myself, I am looking after everybody, all facets are ticking over.

"But you have to be calm about the whole thing, calculated."

Eight days and counting.

Belfast Telegraph

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