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Four consecutive defeats and the mighty Dubs are next

By Declan Bogue

One frosty night in early January, Benny Coulter made the familiar journey along the B8 from Mayobridge to Newry for Down training.

Before the start of the 2015 season, he and Jim McCorry could not meet on the same page about the commitment required. Smarting that the end of his county days were not on his own terms, curiosity brought him to a session under new manager Eamonn Burns.

That night, he left the county dressing room for the final time. It just wasn't for him anymore.

Might he have been good to have around for the last quarter of tight games set up for an aerial bombardment? Or as an example to the younger players of how to approach things without fear and, finally, to show that even in fallow times, you can still aspire to a personal excellence within your game?

Ideas and theories of what he had left to offer 16 years after he made his senior debut are left to unravel in the wind.

Since then, the Mournemen opened their Dr McKenna Cup account with a win over St Mary's University, but their 2-14 concession was a portent of what was to come.

Two 16-point losses to Donegal and Kerry, a nine-point loss to Roscommon and a two-point defeat to Monaghan is the story of their National League campaign so far.

Burns might prefer the Setanta cameras not to be scattered all over Pairc Esler tonight. But Dublin are coming to town. Tough.

Former player John Clarke can read the pulse of the Down footballing public as Coulter's co-host on a weekly radio sports show on the Q Network. Directing anger at the manager for the team's fortunes is futile, he believes.

He said: "It was going to be a huge feat to keep them in Division One. You feel the pessimism after Down lose a few games heavily and they are on the back of the manager, saying the county board should have went for somebody else.

"The county board knew before they made the appointment it was going to be a tough year with a team in transition."

This feeds into a long-standing identity crisis for Down GAA. They have a place at the top table at present, but even the scullery maids feel they are dragging the tone down.

Clarke added: "Down people want success and it is a long time coming. They feel a bit frustrated and the current team and management are bearing the brunt of that."

The year of 2010 hangs over this generation. Only two years after they had failed to get out of Division Three of the National League, James McCartan brought the county to an All-Ireland final, bringing all the stereotypes of swashbuckling football back with him.

Three Down forwards were proof of that; Danny Hughes, Martin Clarke and Coulter all making the All-Stars team at the end of the year, without a single Cork player in the front six despite winning Sam.

Clarke was full-forward on that team. He reflected: "I looked at the team that played Kerry and there were only four left from the 2010 panel. It's a huge change in just five or six years of football in Down. Through injuries, retirements and emigration, it will take a while to turn full circle again."

The fact it wasn't even a fully-mature team was their great pity. Unfortunate injuries to key players such as Ambrose Rogers and Declan Rooney, the defection of Martin Clarke back to Aussie Rules and Paul McComiskey drifting out of the scene meant the ghost of that team hung around for a few years.

It hasn't helped the present bunch. Paul Devlin is one of the new breed and after suffering a complicated knee injury playing for Kilcoo against Crossmaglen in the Ulster Club Championship, has been nursed back to fitness by conditioning coach Ciaran Sloan.

He for one is heartsick of answering questions like if Coulter is coming back or do Dan McCartan, Dan Gordon, Kalum King or Rooney, all the lads who had soldiered for years, deserve their rest from the inter-county treadmill.

He said: "A lot of people are talking about past players coming in, and what are they going to do without the past players?.

"But we feel we have players who are capable of filling their boots. I don't see why people are dwelling too much on players from the past. When you see players in training, they can do the job. There is plenty of talent and ability within the squad."

Down may have the talent and ability. But they are lacking in game-sense, physical strength and leadership.

Ask Devlin, though, and he for one cannot let the negative vibes soak in.

"Whenever I am playing, I am playing to win. You play to win competitions, you don't play to think about relegation. If you prepare to fail then what is the point in going out onto the field?" he added.

The first outing against Donegal showed exactly how far they need to go. There were bodies back in defence, but no real cohesion to what they wanted to achieve.

The transition between defence and attack was laboured. In terms of energy, they were zapped after 40 minutes as Rory Gallagher poured on his veterans and young lads went all out to make an impression.

Whatever Donegal brought, the Mournemen can be assured Dublin will bring more.

Clarke concluded: "Confidence again comes into it, and players cannot believe in a system they are playing if they are getting hammered.

"I am sure they will look to play an ultra-defensive game against Dublin on Saturday, but you know you can only do that for so long against a team like Dublin."

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now.

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