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Down regain the swagger after Tyrone display

By Declan Bogue

Even allowing for the rocky surfaces of the Ulster playing field, 2008 was quite something.

A shake-up of the league system graded some counties in peculiar positions. Down were left in Division Three, not a comfortable state of affairs for such a proud county.

As it turned out, they were unable to get out of that level. Instead, the Fermanagh and Wexford league final was the curtain-raiser for the Division One decider in Parnell Park, with Derry beating Kerry in impressive circumstances.

Later that summer Fermanagh, the beaten Division Three finalists, would overcome Derry in an Ulster semi-final. Down would beat Tyrone after a replay in Newry.

Wexford would beat Down by seven points in a third round qualifier in Croke Park. Tyrone would beat Wexford in an All-Ireland semi-final and then Kerry in the final.

A season of chaos, put into orbit towards the start with a two-game epic that stretched from an opening half in Healy Park when Tyrone went seven points up against Down, all the way to a replay and extra-time in Newry.

In the closing minutes Tyrone looked to have enough done despite a chronic injury list, but Benny Coulter stole in like an expert house-breaker for an opportunist goal to provoke unforgettable scenes.

"We probably took a lot of belief out of that first game in Omagh," recalls Down's John Clarke, who played corner-forward in both games.

"Getting the game back to Newry was a big thing and the atmosphere that night was unbelievable. I think that was worth two or three points to Down right away and the players believed they could win the game."

Peter Donnelly was sent into the fray for Kevin Hughes that night along with Tommy McGuigan who delivered an exemplary display of place-kicking that kept Tyrone close on the scoreboard.

"Tommy McGuigan dragged us back into the game," Donnelly remembers.

"We were motoring rightly into extra-time and the next thing the ball went into the corner, it was maybe a shot for a point and there was a bit of a mix-up, Ryan McMenamin was there and then Benny Coulter nipped in and got a goal.

"That was the breaking point."

A shot looped in towards the Tyrone net and McMenamin told goalkeeper John Devine to leave it.

One of McMenamin's strongest assets was his ability to either play a lovely weighed kick pass out of defence, or else run it himself.

His thoughts were already turning to either option when disaster struck.

"I went to catch it and I put my hands to it, and it went straight through my hands and Benny fisted it in," says McMenamin.

"It was a mistake on my behalf. I was thinking of where to put the ball, two or three steps ahead of myself and I didn't secure the ball. Benny knocked it into the net and the rest is history!

"That was in the second period of extra-time, near the tail-end of the game and it definitely decided the game."

Sounds almost quaint now, but the Down support mobbed the field.

Peter Donnelly says: "You know the way the changing rooms are down at the bottom of Pairc Esler? In behind the goals, and the crowd were coming onto the pitch. It wasn't a nice situation to be in. There was a massive reaction from the Down support."

"I remember people coming on to the field and roaring at us," is McMenamin's memory.

"They were celebrating as if they had won an Ulster title."

Normally, teams would break off for club duty, but Tyrone circled the wagons a few days after.

They asked themselves what they could do differently and McMenamin suggested growing beards to lighten the mood in the room.

In reality, they confronted their failings and worked hard at it.

"It took a lot of soul-searching from a lot of players who had been perhaps coasting a little bit for the past year and a half," recalls McMenamin.

"We just thought that perhaps it was the last of that Tyrone team, but at the end of the day it was a wake-up call for the whole squad.

"It was a catalyst, boys started putting in extra work around the fringes of the sessions – real hard yards in the training and that really brought the squad in closer together."

The real hard yards ended up on the steps of the Hogan Stand with Brian Dooher pumping the Sam Maguire above his head.

At this stage, a Down win tonight would leave nobody predicting an All-Ireland for Tyrone, but similar things were being said back then in the saloons and bars of the county that are being said now.

But Down? Man! A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Tradition. The Down Way. Swagger. All indefinable qualities until you see a sea of red and black flooding the defence of an opposition team.

As the great Sean O'Neill points out, it doesn't take long for a Down team to build momentum.

Twenty minutes of good attacking football in Healy Park last Sunday is enough for them to go at Tyrone tonight with full confidence.

Some are mildly offended at the 'swagger' tag bestowed on Down teams when they are in the mood, but it feels most fitting when you are sitting among their fans with their tails up.

According to Clarke: "A lot of people in Down did not travel last week because they would have been fearing the worst.

"The fact that it was on TV affected it too. The talk around Newry is that the crowds are going to turn out in force," he adds.

After letting Donegal off the hook last year, this is a do-or-die mission for them.

"Last year they didn't believe enough that they could beat Donegal and they have learned from that," maintains Clarke.

"As a result, you seen the performance in the second half on Sunday and (manager) James (McCartan) will be sure to demand a big performance."

Tyrone have been warned.

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