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Boys in red and black have found belief to storm back

By Declan Bogue

Boy, oh boy, we needed that! Down's win provided another compelling argument for those presenting the case to retain the provincial Championships in the face of overwhelming pressure for change.

For some time now, years in fact, the Ulster Championship was turning into a procession of favourites grimly 'doing enough' to make it a punter's graveyard.

There is a fallacy out there that Championship football in Ulster replaced knuckle dusters with feather dusters around the time the qualifiers were introduced. That does not bear scrutiny.

Take 2008 for example. Down beat Tyrone in a replay. Armagh beat Down in the semi-final. National League champions Derry were beaten in the other semi-final by Fermanagh, who had lost a Division Three final to Wexford as the curtain-raiser to Derry's all-but forgotten win over Kerry.

What did change was the culture of some teams taking over. After Derry put back-to-backs together in 1975-76, the feat wasn't repeated until Tyrone in 1995-96.

For a time, it felt like the same old teams in every final. Ho hum.

It would be our contention that there hadn't been a true Championship upset since the 2013 Ulster final, when Monaghan - who had played their league football in Division Three that season - brought down the reigning Ulster and All-Ireland champions Donegal.

Down, along with Cork in the Munster hurling Championship - two counties that would recognise a lot of themselves in each other - have lit up the summer Championships.

For many, Down hold a special place in the hearts of northern Gaels, with many secretly rooting for them as their 'second team.'

In Fermanagh, it wasn't even a secret. For a spell in the 1960's, there was a 'Fermanagh Down Supporters' Group,' as improbable as it sounds.

The Erne county might have been playing a league game in Lisnaskea, but the bus ferrying a couple of dozen Gaelic football fanatics sailed serenely by as it made its way to follow Barney Carr's men in Newcastle or Newry.

Going through my grandfather's keepsakes in an old sewing tin a few years ago, we came across a paper rosette, red and black crepe paper with blue biro underneath proclaiming 'Up Down'. It was bought outside the ground before the 1961 final, when a record attendance of 90,556 watched Down retain their All-Ireland title against Offaly.

Nostalgia also prevailed on Saturday night. The football was being propelled to a full-forward, who enjoyed a circus strongman tussle against the full-back. There was kicking, there were incredible scores, nerve and skills that shows the game of Gaelic football is in a good place.

Monaghan were out-muscled in a game of hitting and banging. Onlookers must have been even more surprised at that than even the final score. But here is the confusing part.

You hear talk of 'The Down swagger' or 'The Down Way', and it makes serious coaches in that county cringe. They prefer that those kind of labels are reserved for branding of the county by administrators, as the very notion they are wedded to an old-type football style is patronising in the extreme to all the work going on in the county.

But, after the win over Armagh, Down's one-man wrecking ball midfielder Peter Turley said of the introduction of sports psychologist Brendan Hackett: "He's been playing a big part… maybe that part has been missing a little while. The belief.

"Brendan was always telling us about the '60s teams, pushing that at us, that we have a tradition of football, of going out and expressing ourselves."

Prior to Hackett linking up with the camp in mid-February, Down were without a win in league and Championship since April 5, 2015.

Since he joined they have beaten Meath at home and followed it with a win away to Derry.

They wobbled when beaten in the next two by the promoted sides, Kildare and Galway, but recovered to survive by forcing a draw on the final play against Cork.

In the Championship they beat Armagh for the first time in 25 years and humbled Monaghan.

Hackett cast up all the history that seemed to weigh the players down. They responded by soaring.

As a strategy it was risky. After all, a lot of these players were mere infants, or even unborn when Down won their last Ulster and All-Ireland titles, though there are reminders around the dressing room as the children of that generation - Aidan Carr and Kevin McKernan - are important leaders within the group.

Their achievements thus far reminds us that mindset is everything.

Belfast Telegraph


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