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Past success can be the spur to inspire Down: O'Neill

By John Campbell

Down legend Sean O'Neill, one of the greatest ever players to grace the Ulster and All-Ireland Championships, is urging his county team to invoke the spirit of 1994 when they confront Derry at Celtic Park on Sunday.

O'Neill, who won All-Ireland medals with Down in 1960, '61 and '68 as well as eight Ulster Championship crowns and a similar number of Railway Cup gongs, recalls with relish the Mourne County's victory over Derry in the '94 Ulster Championship opener, which is regarded as one of the best games to have been played in the competition.

"Derry were then the reigning All-Ireland champions and as such were favourites to win the match" reflected O'Neill.

"It was tight entering the last 10 minutes, but then a genius called James McCartan stepped onto a front stage role and the rest, as they say, is history."

Former Down boss McCartan certainly weaved his magic to telling effect on that occasion and O'Neill, always perceived as a player ahead of his time, fondly pinpoints what he feels was a golden era for Ulster football.

"Down won the All-Ireland title in 1991 and 1994 and sandwiched between those triumphs were Donegal's success in 1992 and Derry's achievement in 1993," stated O'Neill.

"And Tyrone were very unfortunate to be denied an All-Ireland title in 1995."

But 1994 was to prove Down's last acquaintance with the Ulster title, the lean spell since then having occasioned frustration within the football-mad county.

"I thought James McCartan was unlucky with the Down side which he brought into the 2010 All-Ireland final against Cork," pointed out O'Neill.

"That was a tough blow - to only lose an All-Ireland final by a point is the ultimate disappointment."

Given Down's litany of failure in the Ulster series spanning the past two decades, O'Neill is understandably cautious in his assessment of the prospects of Jim McCorry's men as they prepare for battle but hopes they can replicate the spirit of '94.

"It's hard to say what will happen because this is essentially a new Down team.

"I thought Jim did great work in getting his side into Division One when nobody would have given them much of a chance," stated O'Neill.

"Maybe if they get the spirit going again anything can happen.

"It is possible that Down may not make the breakthrough this year but if they can learn from being in Division One I think there is a momentum building that augurs well for the future.

"You have to build towards success in football and if they get a start then I think they could surprise a lot of people."

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