Boss Eamonn Burns sure Down can add to list of big shocks against Donegal
Down manager Eamonn Burns hopes tonight to put the finishing touches to his strategy for Sunday's all-important Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final against Donegal.
Along with his assistant, former Antrim player and joint manager Gearoid Adams, Burns has watched a series of shock results unfold to date in the competition but accepts nonetheless that Donegal will be favourites to come out on top in what promises to be an absorbing battle at St Tiernach's Park, Clones (4.00pm).
"Donegal have a good record in Ulster in recent years. They have always been there or thereabouts when the title was being decided," points out Burns.
Indeed, Donegal's consistency in the Ulster Championship has been eye-catching over the course of recent years despite the fact that they have been forced to engage in a rebuilding process.
They lifted the provincial crown in 2011, 2012 and 2014 and lost in the 2013, 2015 and 2016 finals. This means that, if they win on Sunday, they will go on to play in their seventh final in eight years.
Down, in contrast, last won the Anglo-Celt Cup back in 1994 and made a rare appearance in last year's decider in which they lost to Tyrone.
But Burns and Adams are not prepared to allow the hand of history to prove a burden on their side.
"This current Ulster Championship is a fresh challenge for our side and, while we are aware of what has happened in the past, the whole emphasis will be on delivering a good performance on Sunday," says Burns.
"We have brought in new players like Colm Flanagan and Anthony Doherty, who have followed in the footsteps of Shay Millar by replicating the form he has shown since he came into the side last year.
"We were happy to get over Antrim in our opening match but now we are going in against a Donegal side that have already beaten Cavan and Derry."
Crucial to Down's strategy will be their match-ups.
The big test for Burns and Adams will be to allocate markers to Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty in particular so that their input can be restricted.
Murphy is still a hugely influential figure within the Donegal side, while McHugh is a wily playmaker and McBrearty a lethal finisher who has been in fine form lately.
Down possess capable man-markers in Darren O'Hagan, Brendan McArdle and Flanagan, while veteran Peter Turley and the lion-hearted Niall Donnelly will be expected to cope with the challenge that Donegal will offer at midfield.
"It's the impact Flanagan has made at right-full-back that has allowed us to move Darren O'Hagan into the half-back line where he has been deploying his experience well of late," stresses Burns.
"Competition for places is strong at the minute so we're looking forward to Sunday's game.
"The fact that Peter Turley was able to regain full fitness recently now serves to give us a bit of strength in the middle of the field while there are capable players up front. Things are moving in the right direction."
While Burns and Adams consider the head-to-head contests that could conceivably decide the game, they are conscious Donegal will be keen to eliminate the danger Conor Maginn and Connaire Harrison can cause as the spine of the Down attack.
Maginn is an effective link between defence and attack, while the strongly-built Harrison could have a major input into the game but only if he is supplied with good quality possession, something that did not always happen in the win over Antrim.