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Down must be up for backdoor battles

By John Campbell

After losing to Tyrone the Down players all walked past the media assembled at one of the exit points from Pairc Esler.

Some pretended to be engaged with something really important in their smartphones. Most kept the head down and avoided eye contact. Kevin McKernan was asked for a comment, but replied, "I might say something I regret."

Their frustration was understandable. Another Ulster campaign ended in a dozen 'what-ifs?'

The problem manager James McCartan now has to face is the waning appetite for the backdoor that has emerged in his four previous Championship campaigns.

In 2010, they were beaten by Tyrone in the provincial semi-final, easing their way back in with narrow wins over Longford, Offaly and a more convincing 19-point triumph over Sligo.

Then came the quarter-final shock against Kerry and the fingertips save that got them past Kildare and into the All-Ireland final.

The following year also brought a run as they were unexpectedly dumped out by Armagh in the first round. Again they started slowly with a one-point win over Clare before further victories over Leitrim and Antrim preceded a demolishing loss to Cork.

An Ulster final appearance in 2012 meant they entered the qualifiers at the fourth round, where they became only the second team after Dublin in 2001 to defy a six-day turnaround in a provincial decider to beat Tipperary in Mullingar.

They couldn't back it up though and when they reached Croke Park their lack of quality was exposed with an 11-point thumping by Mayo in the quarter-final.

Last year, McCartan appeared sick after taking on Donegal at their own game of cat-and-mouse in the Ulster semi-final at Breffni Park. It hadn't occurred to coaches to mirror Donegal's formation and there were a whole load of regrets at the end of that loss when Down failed to take their chances.

It felt like the season fell through at that point. Down were forced to revisit Celtic Park, where they had beaten Derry in the first round of Ulster, but this time they could only muster 1-5 as they took their leave.

From the six games of 2010, to four in 2011, two in 2012 and one in 2013, it is an alarming slide.

They face a Leitrim side that have been out of action a week longer than them, but severely depleted with players leaving after their Connacht Championship defeat to Roscommon.

Time to get the show back on the road.

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