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Mournemen ready to shine under the spotlight once again: O'Hagan


By John Campbell

An inordinate turnover of players, scathing public criticism and low morale have tended to savagely blight Down's Championship ambitions since their last appearance in the All-Ireland final in 2010.

On that occasion, the Mournemen fell to Cork by the narrowest of margins (0-16 to 0-15) and since then they have been consigned among the minnows in the flagship competition.

But now, skipper Darren O'Hagan firmly believes that the team's survival in Division Two, coupled with their Ulster Championship win over Armagh, have provided a significant catalyst for better days ahead.

And Clonduff clubman O'Hagan is convinced that an even greater spotlight will fall on Down's renaissance should they manage to defy the odds and lower the colours of Monaghan in Saturday's Ulster Championship semi-final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh (7pm).

O'Hagan needs no reminding of just how great the pressures that accompany the wearing of the famous red and black jersey have been.

"Obviously we have been coming in for criticism and this has not been easy to bear," conceded O'Hagan. "But that win over Armagh has been a big boost to us. Any win in the Ulster Championship, especially over Armagh, would make you happy. We had to work hard to get it though."

In contrast to some of their games in the league, Down showed character and courage in terminating Armagh's provincial title hopes, and these are qualities which O'Hagan hopes to see replicated in front of what will be a full house on Saturday.

"Armagh could not live with us in the second half and that pleased us, although to be honest we made a couple of bad decisions when we did get into the scoring zone," reflected O'Hagan.

O'Hagan is acutely aware that no Down skipper has taken delivery of the Anglo-Celt Cup since 1994, yet while the flame of ambition has been re-lit, reality remains very much to the fore.

"Monaghan are going to be very tough opponents indeed," insisted O'Hagan. "They have won a couple of Ulster titles in the last three years, they are probably up there among the top half-dozen teams on the island and they have a lot of individual talent."

A huge turnover of players, injuries to some key personnel and an inability to find a level of real consistency since the beginning of the year have seen Down treading on ice far too often.

But O'Hagan believes that they have recently acquired a much sharper focus and a renewed inner strength. He added: "This is a massive test for us no matter how you look at it.

"Monaghan are a Division One team, they have a good track record recently and they will have big support on Saturday night. But we feel we have a game plan now, we have strength on the bench and we have players who can influence the course of the match."

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