Down facing selection dilemma as Mayo challenge looms on horizon
Down manager Paddy Tally finds himself confronted by an interesting poser as he sets his sights on what will be his team's biggest home match since he succeeded Eamonn Burns as team boss.
While his side's recent Ulster Championship tie against Armagh may have been viewed as a stellar fixture, there is absolutely no doubt that the visit of new Allianz League champions and perennial All-Ireland nearly men Mayo on Saturday week will have Pairc Esler, Newry bulging at the seams.
And from Tally's perspective the All-Ireland qualifier second round fixture could hardly be coming at a better time.
His team showed admirable courage and character before going down to Armagh by a solitary point after extra-time having played for the greater part of the game with 14 players following the rather harsh early dismissal of Caolan Mooney.
Down, though, got back on the championship rails last Sunday when they beat Tipperary 1-13 to 1-10 in the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers, a victory that has reignited optimism within a county that has had nothing to celebrate since their last Ulster title coup in 1994.
And Tally's poser? He is discovering he has the kind of forward riches that might make him the envy of some other managers.
When push came to shove against Tipperary, Paul Devlin, Cory Quinn and Barry O'Hagan stepped up smartly to the mark following their introduction from the bench - and not for the first time this season either.
Mayobridge marksman Quinn may have become something of a super sub with the Mourne side but his heart is set on a starting place with Devlin and O'Hagan sharing the same ambition.
Between them, Quinn, Devlin and O'Hagan landed 0-5 against Tipperary having previously made an impact when they were also sent on against Armagh in the championship defeat.
Manager Tally, equally delighted to have seen long-serving Brendan McArdle make a return at full-back against Tipperary after a long absence, recognises the input of his substitutes but is keeping his cards close to his chest for the moment at least.
"I think the team is currently showing a greater hunger and desire. Everyone is playing their part and the substitutes we have been introducing have certainly been doing their bit," says Tally.
"Mayo will be a massive challenge for us but we will be ready for them. They won the league title and fair play to them but we see them as a major scalp to be captured. We want to make further progress."
While much has been made of the fact that Mayo boss James Horan has re-shaped his side to some extent in this his second term in charge, it is worth pointing out that his defence is still bolstered by some of the most experienced players not just in the county but in the entire country.
Paddy Durcan has shown for both UUJ and Mayo that he is an outstanding half-back; Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison and Keith Higgins form an uncompromising full-back line; Robbie Hennelly behind them is an impressive goalkeeper and Lee Keegan is the nearest thing to a human dynamo.
It's in the middle third and up front that Horan is currently parading comparatively fresh faces with Matthew Ruane, Fergal Boland and Ciaran Tracey along with James Carr having already earned their stripes in the county colours.
Yet while Mayo have made a significant trophy breakthrough by winning the league, Down are certainly not quaking in their boots at the prospect of going into the ring with them.
"I honestly feel this Down side can go somewhere in the qualifiers. Maybe getting a win over Tipperary is nothing special to write home about but it has fuelled self-belief and that's important," maintains Tally.
"I think the team will bring commitment and fire to the table on Saturday week. The boys know that if they were to win this one it would go some distance towards the restoration of real credibility. Let's just say that we will be up for the challenge."
Meanwhile, former Galway All-Ireland winner Alan Kerins believes that the Ulster Minor Football Championship is building towards what he feels will be "a tremendous climax".
With Derry due to meet Tyrone and Donegal set to take on Donegal in the semi-finals tomorrow week, Kerins, an ambassador for the All-Ireland Minor Championship series incorporating the Player of the Year and Team of the Year accolades, suggests that the standard of play at this level in the province to date augurs well for the future.
"When you look at the quality of players who have emerged through the minor ranks of late - and I'm thinking here of guys like Rian O'Neill from Armagh and Cavan's Oisin Pierson - you get some idea of the talent being nurtured," points out Kerins.
"I know Kerry have been the dominant force at All-Ireland level for the past five years but who's to say that they cannot be seriously challenged by an Ulster side."
With the minor age limit having been lowered to Under 17 this year, Kerins acknowledges that he is even more surprised at the depth of talent he is witnessing.
"There is definitely a rich seam of talent coming to the fore in Ulster. There are a lot of senior inter-county players around in the country as a whole who have reason to be grateful for the coaching and encouragement they received at minor level," states Kerins.
When Derry and Tyrone go head to head at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh tomorrow week they will hope to replicate the form they have shown so far.
The Red Hands beat Donegal 1-12 to 1-8 before losing to Monaghan 3-8 to 0-13 then eased past Down 1-15 to 1-10.
Derry meanwhile, powered by their Downey family connection, beat Armagh in their opening game of the championship before going on to account for Cavan by 0-19 to 1-12.
Monaghan have beaten Down, Antrim and Tyrone to date while Donegal proved too strong for Armagh and Cavan but lost to Tyrone. It was the manner in which they beat Armagh and Cavan in particular which has seen Donegal move into the frame as favourites.