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Poland is certain he made right call to end Down time

 

By Declan Bogue

Like most other inter-county footballers considering their future, Down's Mark Poland consulted those he trusted the most.

For him, it was his father John and mother Brenda. They weren't entirely keen.

Sitting in a cafe in Newry a month after the announcement he was bringing it to an end, he recounts: "They always told me, 'go back, go back', and I was going back."

He went to the team meeting on November 15. But even as the 32-year-old listened to manager Eamonn Burns laying out his plans for the year ahead, the doubts poisoned his mind.

According to insiders at Down training, he had never been moving as well as he had last summer. And yet the only Championship action he would get was all in garbage time.

"I had boys coming up to me and telling me I deserved more gametime," he says.

"I knew myself I should have. I have absolutely no doubt about that. If I was playing that well at training and not getting much gametime, what was it going to be like this time?"

So the very next day he had the conversation with Burns. He was gone. That wasn't so bad, but telling his parents was much tougher.

"They were devastated," he recalls.

"Dad isn't the emotional type. But he sent me a message saying it was hard to believe.

"He said he shed a tear or two and thought back to a south Down game in 1995, 1996. And they would have seen me play every age group up. I think it was a shock to them.

"I had told him I was going back another year. But then I came out of that meeting and I just had my mind made up that it was the right time for me to step outside."

As he points out, county players are not slow in telling the outside world of all the sacrifices they make, but adds in that the sacrifice extends to immediate family.

He has one of his own now too. His wife Emer is a brand ambassador in Dublin for Jameson Whiskey, whose job involves a lot of travelling. They have little Cillian now too, at 16 months.

"Having your first child as well, you want to be around as much as possible," he said.

When he looks back on his career in the red and black, 2010 is the cloud that will continue to hound that generation of Down footballers - Poland, Benny Coulter, Brendan McVeigh, Marty Clarke, Danny Hughes and so on.

After 27 minutes, Down were up by 0-7 to 0-2. Cork took 32 minutes to score their first point from play. It seemed Sam was coming to Down for the sixth time.

Then Daniel Goulding caught fire, hitting nine points.

A late scramble was mounted, but essentially Down ran out of time.

The next day, the Down team were brought up onto a stage erected against the main stand in Pairc Esler. Speeches and promises were made that they would be back to finish the job. But the losing homecoming is an uncomfortable experience.

"I was in a daze. Just wanted to get out of there. We went back to Longstone that night and if you had seen the shape of me at the end of that night... that was probably my way of forgetting about the day before," he said.

He has never watched the final back. Not once. The odd time, he watches You Tube clips of the Down All-Ireland triumphs of the '90s. He has watched their incredible semi-final win against Kildare in its entirety, viewed the first half of the quarter-final win over Kerry - featuring his stunning goal after 51 seconds - but if the Cork final was put on over the Christmas period: "I would be heading up to my room," he laments.

He was taken off in the 66th minute and believes it to be a mistake. So too, belatedly, did his manager James McCartan.

"James came up to me afterwards and said he shouldn't have taken me off," he reveals.

"That I was getting on the ball and making things happen, but there's other players who were better known at that time, bigger statures who weren't performing, and they were left on the pitch. But he was big enough to tell me, to apologise for the mistake."

In any case, he owed plenty to McCartan.

While the Longstone man had made his Championship debut in 2006, coming on as a sub in that ill-fated 1-7 to 0-4 defeat to Sligo in the qualifiers, he was ignored until McCartan got the job.

Down football has always prized its big men, but nobody knew more about how effective a smaller, creative ball-player could be than Wee James. Come the 2010 Ulster Championship, McCartan handed Poland the number 11 jersey to face Donegal in baking hot Ballybofey. Poland repaid him with three points in a thrilling extra-time win.

"It was a big thing back then, constantly being told you were too small," he recalls.

"People would have been saying when you were back at the club after being away at the county that 'you're not going to feature, you are too small, too light'.

"But if you want to play county football you will be determined to do it.

"You're going to tell me that skilful players are going to miss out like that because they are not big in stature?"

Now it's all over.

He won't struggle to fill the void. His face lights up when he talks of Cillian. He is employed by the Down County Board and renowned as an excellent coach in those circles.

Longstone still will have his commitment, and he is looking forward to doing some boxing training having fought as an amateur for Mourne All-Blacks ABC.

Then there's Liverpool FC too. He gets over to a couple of games a year.

Life goes on. The cause endures.

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