When you’re standing there in front of him, it’s when it hits you. Mark Poland is nowhere near as small as you thought. You realise that you have been conned by a strange low-centre-of-gravity optical illusion and the Longstone man is actually 5’9”.
It’s just after the amazing Down second-half comeback against Monaghan. He’s wearing Vinny Corey’s full-back jersey and he’s not drowning in it either. A plasterer by trade, he puts the feat down to blue-collar qualities. You suggest that the Championship is exhausting, but chasing the ball they way they were forced to in the first half must have made it doubly so.
Poland knocks it away, saying, “I wouldn’t say we were exhausted because there was no work-rate at all in that first half. Only for the penalty, we would have had a mountain to climb in the second half. The goal left us in it at half-time, because we knew we had played nothing.
“We knew that if we upped the workrate, we could outplay them because we know we’re a better footballing side. But they fought like dogs, typical Monaghan team. Don’t get me wrong, they have quality players and they take their scores but we weren’t doing ourselves any favours because our workrate in the first half was pathetic.”
Just before the break, Monaghan were already a tiny dot on the horizon. Aidan Carr’s penalty brought them into focus again, but few anticipated what was to follow.
Therefore, some urgent honesty was required during the break. “Nothing was changed,” revealed Poland. “The boys were honest with one another. I wasn’t picking up any breaking ball in the first half, I wasn’t getting inside my man. Everybody was doing the same and they were bullying us in the middle of the field.
“When Down work hard, we’re as good as anybody, when we don’t work hard, we’re average. We know that ourselves, we don’t need people telling us that.”
It’s been a strange year for Down. Their Championship preparations were disturbed last year over the uncertainty over Marty Clarke’s future and along with Clarke, they lost rising star Caolan Mooney to the AFL. A couple of drab defeats to Cork and Kerry brought some heat upon them early on in the spring, before they recovered enough to make it to the league semi-final.
That they managed to do so has been largely down to players like Poland. Last year, he scored one of the goals of the season at this venue when he made the Armagh defence dizzy with his swerves and twists.
Here he was on Sunday full of industry, running at the defence and putting his clubmate Ambrose Rogers through on goal a few times.
“I’ve been playing with Ambrose since I was six or seven years of age,” he says. “He knows when to come off my shoulder and in fairness when Ambrose he’s like that Black Caviar or that Frankel, when that man gets going there’s no stopping him. I don’t think there’s a midfielder in Ireland has the legs for that man.
“That’s him coming back from a serious spleen operation, a cruciate operation on both legs. The attitude of the man is just incredible and it comes from his late father, his granny and his parents. It’s brilliant for him.”
If Down were interested in excuses, the loss of Clarke and Mooney came ready-made, but with all of James McCartan’s substitutes making vital contributions, Poland feels the quality of the strength is underplayed.
“Fair enough, people are going to say that we have all these marquee players away; Marty is away, Mooney’s away, there’s good footballers in Down and just because those boys are away, doesn’t mean that we’re not prepared to work and work hard, because there’s a level-headed bunch out there.”
He elaborated; “Kevin Duffin came on and won a lot of breaking ball, Doyler came on and kicked a point from a free, Benny came on and kicked a score.”
For now, they have an Ulster final to look forward to on July 22 against the winners of this Saturday nights’ encounter between Tyrone and Donegal. Poland will be an interested spectator at Clones this Saturday.
“They are two different animals, we know that, but we will just sit back and watch it.”