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Burns homing in on survival at last fence as Down face league crunch

By John Campbell

For a team that has returned with the spoils of victory from two traditionally intimidating outposts in recent weeks, Down footballers will rather perversely view their do-or-die re-scheduled mission against Tipperary at Pairc Esler, Newry tomorrow with considerable trepidation.

Indeed, it's the precise location of the contest that means long-suffering Mourne county fans will feel that form, statistics and morale are not on their team's side as they mount a desperate bid to retain their tenuous hold on Division Two status.

An away victory over now relegated Louth and a feisty bonus on Roscommon soil form the sum total of Down's dividend from a campaign that has gone from bad to worse.

Home losses to a moderate Clare outfit and a Cork side that is in transition served to highlight flaws in Down's machinery which have still to be addressed.

If it is a case that the least said the soonest mended, then perhaps the management team were wise to keep their counsel in the immediate aftermath of last Sunday's humiliating 4-14 to 1-14 setback at the hands of fellow-strugglers Meath.

Perched just above Down with five points, Meath hope to have their passport stamped for another term in Division Two by getting the better of Peter McGrath's Louth.

And their chances of survival certainly appear to be better than those of Eamonn Burns's side, who will confront a Tipperary line-up that was unlucky to surrender to Cavan last Sunday and which has compiled a whopping 12-78 in their half-dozen matches to date while conceding a modest 3-80.

In contrast, Down have scored less, 3-74, than Tipperary have leaked - just one of several statistics not calculated to fan the flame of Mourne hope.

For Down's players, tomorrow's game is a test of character.

Skipper Niall McParland leads a side that is not short on experience given that Darragh O'Hanlon, Caolan Mooney, Darren O'Hagan, Kevin McKernan, Conor Maginn and Donal O'Hare have been round the block a few times, while Shay Millar, Anthony Doherty and Colm Flanagan have more than justified the faith shown in them.

It was McGrath who earned an exalted place in Down folklore by masterminding those epic 1991 and 1994 triumphs when Paddy O'Rourke and DJ Kane, two dedicated men still with the best interests of Mourne football at heart, led from the front all the way up the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Tomorrow, McGrath would virtually qualify for canonisation if his struggling Louth were to rumble Meath while his native county were to pull the mat from under Tipperary.

But at this point in time that might require more than a frisson of belief in sporting miracles.

Belfast Telegraph

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