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Down need new case for defence

By John Campbell

Down manager James McCartan has been forced to stomach a diet of first-rate attacking play and fifth-rate defending in the National Football League to date.

And rather than taking time out during the current three-week break, McCartan is mulling over his options as he seeks to strengthen his rearguard before facing difficult assignments against Dublin, Kerry and Mayo.

In conceding 4-11 to Cork last Sunday, Down provided disturbing evidence that they could yet find themselves involved in a battle to retain their Division One status.

That’s something that McCartan would obviously prefer to avoid yet the two-time All-Ireland winner is nothing if not realistic about his team’s current situation.

“We have scoring forwards but we have a tendency to leak too many scores and that’s something we have to remedy.

“We have difficult matches ahead of us in Division One and unless we are more secure at the back we could have problems,” admits McCartan.

Injuries have certainly not helped him in his efforts to keep what might be regarded as his first-choice defensive formation intact.

Declan Rooney and Damien Rafferty, both outstanding in Down’s surge into the 2010 All-Ireland final, have been out of action for several months while Conor Garvey, a combative half-back, has just returned following a lengthy lay-off.

Kevin McKernan, an All Star centre-half-back, has been missing this year having been in Australia while Daniel McCartan has been carrying an injury and Gerard McCartan is just back after recovering from a shoulder problem.

“When you have first-choice boys out it is not easy. We thought the situation was easing but that Cork result has put things in perspective for us,” says McCartan.

Owen Costello, Keith Quinn and Damien Turley may not be familiar names in a Down defensive context but Aidan O’Rourke, No 2 to McCartan, is quick to point out that they are not responsible for the team’s slump in fortunes.

“We went through the McKenna Cup without conceding a goal. But that has certainly all changed since the league started.

“When you concede goals at this level you make things very hard for yourself. In the modern game, the defending starts at number 15,” insists O’Rourke.

The return of Liam Doyle to the No 6 shirt is a plus-factor — his goal against Donegal helped secure victory in that opening league game — but the lack of overall experience in defence is proving a handicap.

O’Rourke is highly regarded in Ulster GAA circles not just as a defensive coach but as an overall tactician and he is applying himself assiduously in trying to improve Down’s overall defensive technique.

“We have got to get the balance right in the side but you have to start with defence. We have players to come in and we will have further options but that will not guarantee us results.

“Division One is a very tough environment and league points are hard won,” maintains O’Rourke who is Director of Football at Queen’s University.

Down are due to host Kerry at Pairc Esler, Newry on March 4 and both McCartan and O’Rourke are hoping they will be able to strengthen their team for that match.


Former Monaghan and Ulster star Kieran ‘Jap’ Finlay has passed away.

He was a county player for over a decade, producing his most memorable performance in the 1979 Ulster final when scoring 1-9 in a man of the match display against Donegal.

Kieran had been a driving force behind the major refurbishment of Pearse Park, Ballybay.

His son Paul is currently one of the sport’s most high profile players.

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