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Down aim to bring an end to 20 years of hurt

By John Campbell

When 2014 dawns in a few short weeks it will mark an inauspicious anniversary in terms of the GAA in Down.

Twenty years will then have elapsed since the Mourne county last won the Ulster senior football championship title, so it's hardly surprising that manager James McCartan and his backroom team are bracing themselves for a full-frontal assault on the provincial prize.

And already McCartan is keeping his fingers crossed that the wretched luck which his side endured in terms of long-term injuries this year will be conspicuous by its absence.

Even the normally affable and whimsical McCartan is anything but flippant when he quips: "Sometimes it was easier to pronounce who was fit rather than who was unavailable through injury, emigration or for other reasons."

Yet as the Down boss prepares to embark on his fifth year in charge – and it could be his last – a substantial chink of light is visible at the end of what has been a long dark tunnel.

Peter Fitzpatrick is back from Australia and ready to challenge for a midfield berth and Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes looked sprightly with their clubs at the tail-end of the league campaign having been nothing more than spectators for the county team.

Niall McParland could also be on the way back and the ageless Benny Coulter has committed for another season in the trenches.

In addition, Darragh O'Hanlon, Paul Greenan, Niall McEvoy and Paul Devlin have been showing the kind of form with Kilcoo that would suggest they have already come under McCartan's radar.

Keith Quinn may still be in America and Aidan Carr continues to work his way back to full fitness, but Niall Madine looks set to further his career in the attack, Connaire Harrison now has extra experience under his belt and Donal O'Hare has provided ample confirmation that he is a leading sharpshooter in the province.

Down PRO Paul Rooney perhaps best encapsulates the frustration that has ben felt within the county when he declares:

"The real annoying thing is that we only got a number of players back on board when the championship season had reached an advanced stage. James McCartan never at any time had a full complement of players at his disposal – quite the reverse, in fact."

McCartan made an enormous contribution to Down's Ulster and All-Ireland title triumphs in 1991 and 1994 and knows better than anyone just how deep the craving is within this football-mad county for more success.

McCartan said: "We don't want to be seen to be wallowing in excuses in relation to the recent past.

"We just want to go forward in positive mode.

"There are encouraging aspects as we look ahead to 2014."

His side came close to pulling off a major shock in the Ulster championship this year when they bossed their game with the then All-Ireland champions Donegal only to spurn several scoring chances in the last quarter which proved their undoing.

They subsequently bowed out of the All-Ireland qualifiers to Derry having previously beaten Brian McIver's side in the quarter-final of the Ulster series.

Meanwhile, former Down manager Peter McGrath has still to confirm his full backroom team in his new role as Fermanagh boss.

McGrath, who steered Down to glory in 1991 and '94, has already revealed that former player Raymond Johnston will work alongside him but has yet to finalise his other assistants.

He will conduct trials on Sunday in his extensive search for new talent and it is understood that he is awaiting confirmation from some established players as to their ability or otherwise for next year.

"No hasty decisions are being made on any front. Peter is anxious to have what he feels will be the best possible managerial backroom team in place.

"Hopefully we will be able to get off on the right foot in the Dr McKenna Cup and take things from there," said Fermanagh PRO Johnny McManus.

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