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Burns is keen for Down to challenge big guns

By John Campbell

New Down manager Eamonn Burns would surely have opted for a less challenging competitive debut than that which awaits him when his side confront Donegal in the opening round of the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup on Sunday.

With a plethora of players absent because they are committed to their university sides, two established defenders out with long-term injuries and several novices about to be plunged into the hurly-burly of the inter-county arena, Burns could be said to have grounds for considerable apprehension.

But far from garbing himself in sackcloth and ashes, Burns is enthusiastically rolling up his sleeves as he prepares to take his first step in striving to restore the credibility - indeed considerable status - that Down enjoyed in the past.

"I'm actually looking forward to the McKenna Cup," said Burns with obvious relish.

"Certainly we have players unavailable to us and yes, going to Donegal in the first game is no easy task but I feel that this match represents an opportunity for us as management to have a look at as yet untried players and see where we are at."

The loss of Luke Howard and Brendan McArdle from his defence will certainly prove an early test of the Mourne manager's ability to infuse an extra element of versatility within his squad.

"Luke played very steadily at full-back this year, thus allowing Brendan to move up to centre-half-back and the loss of these players robs us of the spine of our defence, you could say," pointed out Burns.

"But we have other defenders in the squad, like Conall McGovern for example, who might just be able to slot into different positions and do a job for us.

"To be honest, full-back has been something of a difficult position to fill for Down over the years although to be fair in Brian Burns and Conor Deegan we had outstanding exponents in that position in the past."

Burns will also be seeking a midfield partner for Peter Turley and is hoping to discover extra fire-power up front.

While the McKenna Cup offers a stiff programme - his side must take on Fermanagh and St Mary's after their meeting with Donegal - it's nothing to the challenge that awaits the side in Division One of the league.

And there is more than a touch of irony in the fact that Down's opening league game will be against Donegal at Pairc Esler, Newry on January 30 - the precursor to further hugely attractive home showdowns against reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin and Kerry.

It's one step at a time, though, for the pragmatic Burns who played on the All-Ireland winning Down sides of 1991 and 1994 before pursuing a career in club management which embraced the Bryansford, Ballymartin and Darragh Cross teams.

"Obviously the aim will be to get a settled team for the league and it's certainly going to be tough to be playing against elite sides but that's how teams improve," insisted Burns.

"We would expect to have more players back on board for the league but in the meantime we will be giving the McKenna Cup our best shot.

"There is no point in dwelling on what might be considered to be negatives, we must take a positive approach to our work."

The ongoing success of the Kilcoo club - they have won the Down championship title for the past four years - has served to throw up further candidates for the county team while Burns and his selectors believe they can unearth additional nuggets from other areas of the county.

"It is recognised that there are a lot of good players in Down so we would hope to come up with some fresh talent - perhaps starting this Sunday against what will be a well-organised and fit Donegal side," added Burns.

"We are going to become every well acquainted with Donegal over the coming weeks but for now we are only focused on Sunday's meeting.

"We will just take things as they come."

Belfast Telegraph


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