When Down step onto the Ulster Championship stage for the first time this year against Donegal on Sunday it will be something of a personal crusade for their experienced forward Daniel Hughes.
The Saval clubman still harbours painful memories of the Mourne County’s last Championship outing at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey in 2006 when, in the absence of regular right-sided free-taker Liam Doyle who had rather surprisingly been withdrawn earlier by manager Paddy O’Rourke, he was entrusted with the task of taking a late free that had it been scored might have tipped the scales in his team’s favour.
The chance was missed — and the ramifications were serious. Down slid out of the Championship and even worse was to follow when they were humbled by Sligo in the All Ireland Qualifiers — a defeat that marked the end of O’Rourke’s reign and opened the door for Ross Carr to come in.
O’Rourke of course is now the Armagh boss in which role he has already made a huge impact while Hughes, a Newry accountant, is still a key component of a Down attack that flourished during the team’s recent successful National League programme but which faces a demanding test against the muscular Donegal defence on Sunday.
But Hughes has his own particular reason for insisting that the Down players must stand up and be counted on Sunday.
“When we lost that game to Donegal a few years ago Paddy O’Rourke, being the honest man that he is, came out and took all the blame for what happened,” points out Hughes.
“He agreed that he had taken Liam Doyle off too early but at the same time we as players were the ones that lost the match, it wasn’t Paddy.
“Now we have a chance to redress the balance and I hope for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of our fans that we can achieve this.”
Conscious that false dawns in the Ulster series have spawned doubts and even cynicism about the team’s ability to turn the corner this year, 28-year-old Hughes acknowledges that this weekend’s game is “a mammoth mission by any standards.”
And while he hopes that Down’s injury worries in relation to Damien Rafferty, Brendan McArdle and Ambrose Rogers ease between now and the weekend, he is adamant that whatever starting 15 manager James McCartan settles upon they must be prepared to grasp the nettle.
“People can blame this and that when matches are lost but ultimately it’s all down to us as players to be ready to accept responsibility on the day. Several of us have been round long enough to know what it is all about and we are very aware that any progress we might have made in the league will be diluted if we don’t perform in the Championship,” states Hughes.
His high work-rate that entails tracking back continually to assist his defence and his marked scoring flair have helped to underpin Down’s strategy to date but Hughes insists that Donegal’s physicality, fitness and flair will combine to make them formidable opponents.
“We might have beaten them in the National League but that match counts for nothing. This Sunday is all about pride and passion,” he raps. And then adds with a smile: “But I think you can take it for granted that I won’t be trying to put over any frees late in the game from what is the wrong side of the pitch for me.”