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Burns' future is unclear as Down sink to all new low

By John Campbell

Six years ago, Down reached the All-Ireland senior football final only to lose to Cork by the narrowest of margins, 0-16 to 0-15.

Today, the once proud Mourne county is in crisis. It may well hold more All-Ireland crowns than any other Ulster team (five) but memories of different golden eras have long since receded as the tentacles of disappointment, depression and indeed disharmony took hold.

Bizarrely, Down have not won a single competitive Sunday game this year. Their last win was recorded on Wednesday, January 13 when they overcame modest opposition in the form of St Mary's University College in the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup by 3-20 to 2-14.

Even then the alarm bells were beginning to ring but they have now reached a deafening crescendo in the wake of seven straight league defeats that rendered relegation to Division Two a formality, a shuddering 2-22 to 0-9 reversal at the hands of Monaghan in the first round of the Ulster Championship and Saturday's shattering All-Ireland qualifier loss to lowly Longford (3-17 to 2-24).

Yet even a cursory glance at the scorelines will underline one of Down's current basic ills - an alarming tendency to leak scores.

The overall total conceded in those three games alone was an astonishing 7-53 - enough said.

Manager Eamonn Burns has grown accustomed to putting on a brave face and has had to confront the media on far too many occasions with his hands tied behind his back - a devastating experience for a proud Down man who won two All-Ireland medals as a dedicated player.

He was ushered into the manager's role after Jim McCorry departed in embarrassing circumstances last year and now he is surely considering his future following what may have been the most traumatic six months of his sporting life.

Normally polite and self-effacing, Burns has been taking the strain recently and frankly the outlook does not look bright.

"It was disappointing to lose to Longford," reflected Burns. "I am very disappointed for the boys. I thought they worked very hard but that's the way it goes. It went to extra-time and Longford finished the stronger."

Should Burns decide to step aside, it's unlikely that a queue of candidates will form in the hope of taking his place. Two managers in as many years is a statistic that does not breed confidence.

Meanwhile, Fermanagh could hardly have asked for a tougher assignment in Round 2B of the All-Ireland football qualifiers than an away trip to a Mayo side anxious to regain credibility following their eclipse by Galway in the Connacht semi-final.

Pete McGrath's side lost out to Donegal in the quarter-finals of the Ulster Championship and now face a demanding examination, while the losers of Saturday's Ulster semi-final replay between Donegal and Monaghan must travel to take on Longford who surprisingly conquered Down after extra-time.

Fermanagh, who retained their place in Division Two of the Allianz League, have targeted the qualifiers as their road to redemption but McGrath, who believes his side did not play to their potential against Donegal, acknowledges they face a difficult route.

"You never know what you are going to get when you enter the qualifiers and now that we have drawn Mayo we know how challenging it's going to be but we will be up for it," stated McGrath.

"I thought against Donegal we turned over too much ball, we were caught out by the pace of their counter-attacking and our decision-making and shot selection were not all that they should have been. I still feel that if we play the way I know we can then we can be a match for any team."

And while neither Donegal or Monaghan will be quaking at the prospect of Longford, it's safe to say that their shared intense desire to reach the Ulster final will only have been heightened.

All-Ireland Football Qualifiers Round 2B: Mayo v Fermanagh, Donegal or Monaghan v Longford, Kildare v Offaly, Limerick v Cork.

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