Returning Brendan McArdle says Down can be Ulster kings
A player who has not kicked a ball for Down for almost a year is preparing to put his body on the line against Monaghan in Sunday's Ulster senior football Championship quarter-final.
It was in the build-up to last year's crushing All-Ireland qualifier defeat to Wexford that Brendan McArdle, who has been in the Mourne squad for nine years but is still without any honours, sustained an injury which has kept him in the shadows since.
But McArdle, passionately committed to his county and desperate to see the provincial title return after a 22-year absence, has pursued a rigorous rehabilitation programme that now sees him chomping at the bit to help end the trophy famine.
"Every year when the Ulster Championship comes round I feel that Down are fit to win the title," declared McArdle.
"You're looking at the best in Ulster and I definitely think that Down can compete with that. I know that over the last few years we have not got the results we should have but there's assuredly an Ulster title in this team.
"We were relegated from Division One but I believe we can come good in the Championship."
McArdle's longevity in the county team is all the more praiseworthy when it is considered that eight players who saw action against Wexford last year - Jerome Johnston, Caolan Mooney, Peter Fitzpatrick, Conor Laverty, Niall Madine, Ross McGarry, Ryan Johnston and Arthur McConville - have either left the squad or are out injured.
"Eamonn Burns has done a fine job since taking over as manager. He was appointed late and had to oversee a further transition within the squad," pointed out McArdle.
McArdle's buoyant approach is viewed as a breath of fresh air in a dressing room which has absorbed its share of heartbreak, never more so than when the 2010 All-Ireland final was lost to Cork by 0-16 to 0-15.
It ranks among one of the more depressing days that McArdle has endured in the county colours yet his zest and commitment remain as fierce as ever.
But realism tempers his enthusiasm as he contemplates his return to the Championship.
"It is daunting to be hoping to come back against the Ulster champions because when you are playing inter-county football at Championship level you need to be 100 per cent fit," insisted McArdle. "I have hit my targets in my recovery programme so if I am asked to undertake a job, any job, on Sunday I am pretty confident of doing that."
A spectator during Down's dismal league campaign which culminated in relegation, McArdle refuses to buy into the pessimism that engulfs the county.
"The league was tough but I thought we gained a lot of momentum," stated McArdle. "We ran Mayo very close at the end of the league and that game has given us a lot of confidence.
"We still feel we are in a good place and I think we have the opportunity now to go on and beat Monaghan."
Down, though, have particular reason to fear free-scoring Monaghan skipper Conor McManus, yet McArdle is convinced that the Mournemen can police him effectively.
"Everybody has taken on board Conor's performances but I believe that we have men who are more than capable of doing a job on him," insisted McArdle.
"He played against us four years ago and we were able to contain him. I don't buy into this one-man team theory. Monaghan have a number of quality players - people like the Hughes brothers and others who are every experienced and well versed in Championship football.
"We feel we know Monaghan pretty well. Everyone knows their style of play and what they can do and we feel we have done enough in training to be able to counteract what they are going to throw at us on the day."
Ulster Senior Football Championship QF:
Clones, Sunday, 2.00pm