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Down and Cork in different world 10 years from Croker

 

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Changed times: Down and Cork line up ahead of the 2010 All Ireland final at Croke Park

Changed times: Down and Cork line up ahead of the 2010 All Ireland final at Croke Park

�INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Changed times: Down and Cork line up ahead of the 2010 All Ireland final at Croke Park

Ten years on from their All-Ireland final, and Down make the long haul down to Cork to face the Rebels tomorrow. The amazing thing about it all is that it takes place in a Division Three league game.

But, it's been coming. The two met each other two years ago in Division Two and have taken it in turns to drop a division. Down are no strangers to the third tier, but this is Cork's first time there.

And the other thing is that if either team cannot get up or make their provincial final, then the Tier Two Championship is their punishment/fate.

There is a certain breed of Down fan, all swashbuckle and swagger, who regards that prospect like leaving the house in the morning only to trip up on a bucket of vomit left on the doorstep.

"It goes back to tradition and history," Down boss Paddy Tally acknowledges.

"People growing up and watching their football in the '80s and '90s when the Down team were winning All-Ireland titles, competing regularly in Ulster finals.

"Even with 2010, it was 10 years ago, that was Down back in Division One, playing football at the top level and for a number of years stayed there. So there's only a natural thing among Down people that feels they should be at the top, that Down should be competing against the best teams, based on their history and tradition."

Cork are the only side in the top three divisions to have won their opening two fixtures, but must do is a great master. There has never been more skin in the Division Three game than now.

It's curious, and yet another example of how small the world of Ulster football is, that it's the slim, baseball-capped figure of Tally who is now Down manager.

A squad player with the Tyrone team that reached the All-Ireland final in 1995, he was still in his late 20s when he trained Tyrone to their first All-Ireland in 2003.

After a parting of ways he was always in demand and the Down management of Ross Carr and DJ Kane brought him in for the 2009 season.

While there, he could see there was talent. He also was privy to the ongoing cross-hemisphere charm offensive Carr was conducting to woo Marty Clarke home from his life playing Aussie Rules with Collingwood.

But then Carr and Kane were removed from their posts. 'Wee' James McCartan got the gig for 2010, asked Tally to stay on, benefitted from Clarke returning, and they fetched up through the backdoor into an All-Ireland final like it was the most natural thing in the world.

McCartan kept Down at a serious level. They reached an Ulster final in 2012 and the year after solved the Donegal puzzle in an Ulster semi-final but didn't have the finishing power to take them out.

Thereafter the county board lurched into tragicomedy. Jim McCorry came in and lasted a year. The late Eamonn Burns took over and they dropped two divisions in three seasons.

In Down, there was still considerable goodwill towards Tally. He had performed a footballing miracle in guiding the relatively miniscule St Mary's teacher training college to the Sigerson Cup in 2017 and had coached with Derry and Galway to a high level. This would be the first time where he was front of house though.

It wasn't straightforward. In his first year he had to hand debuts to 19 players in the league and 13 in championship as he fell just the wrong side of the fine margins in both competitions.

"I think people realise that there is a job of work to do here. We are trying to manage expectations as best we can, out there with the people. It is a bit of a process and it does take time to develop young players that they will be able to do that in time," he says.

"But certainly, I think Down wouldn't fear anybody in terms of their record and traditions and we have to harness that. In how we carry ourselves, how we play the game."

He's not given to 'gee-whizz' notions, but the fact that it's Cork, 10 years on, well, it does prompt a certain wistfulness.

"When you see Cork over the last few years you know there are some really good players with the minors and the under-20s coming through. Sometimes you just can take the eye off the ball for a year or two and can be relegated from the league," he says.

"It's only when you are down among the have-nots for a sustained spell that you begin to realise that your season will actually be judged on what you do in February, rather than the height of summer.

"And it's so early in the year (for this pressure) too," exclaims Tally.

"It is really important that you do have a good league because it is a completely different situation this year for anyone in those two leagues.

"This is going to go right down to the wire in the league, with score difference and head to heads coming into play. I really cannot look further than this game at the weekend and all we can do is prepare as best we can for a monster challenge in Cork."

Belfast Telegraph