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The speed of Mournemen's decline hasn't come as major surprise, says ex-star Hughes

 

By Declan Bogue

If Derry's relegation to Division Four was the story of last weekend, then another Ulster team are poised to follow suit.

Eight years after reaching an All-Ireland final, Down stand on the precipice of tumbling into Division Three tomorrow.

Whatever way you look at it, this season in Division Two has been a stay of execution for manager Eamonn Burns and his team.

Last year, their fate came down to the final play of the league campaign.

Relegated from Division One in 2016, they struggled in the second tier. Derry and Fermanagh played a final league game in Brewster Park and the home side's collapse - when they let the Oak Leafs pip them at the post - gave Down a chink of light.

At the other end of the island, Jerome Johnston nailed a '45' to earn the Mournemen a deserved draw against Cork. Themselves, Derry and Clare finished level on points, so the scoring difference rule came into play and Down stayed up.

It was in their own hands last year. This year it is even more drastic.

With just four points earned, they need to beat Tipperary at home. The noises coming out of the Premier County are that with promotion now blown after losing by a point to Cavan last weekend, they will be in full experimental mode.

But even a win may not save them if Meath - nine-point winners over Down last Sunday - beat bitter rivals and neighbours Louth, who are still searching for their first league point of the campaign.

The cross-Boyne rivalry is not to be underestimated in Gaelic football, and a Meath side that have shown good form recently will not want to come out on the wrong side of it.

Eight years on from contesting an All-Ireland final, Down appear to be heading for their second relegation in three campaigns, a period in which they have won only four league games.

Their dramatic slide has alarmed many in the county, not least their 2010 All-Star wing-forward Danny Hughes.

He believes that the decline began when star man Marty Clarke returned Down Under to resume his Australian Rules Football career once the 2011 Championship season ended.

"Although we hadn't been successful at all, you can't say 2010 was a success because we didn't win any medals - but (we had) the ability to compete with teams. We were one or two players away and in 2010 we got those one or two players and sometimes that's all it takes," explained Hughes.

"Marty was one player who offered us four or five guaranteed frees, from anywhere on the field. Plus, what he brought from play, he released me and Benny Coulter up a lot as well. They had to watch Benny, and myself I suppose, but also spend a lot of time worrying about Marty, along with Mark Poland, Paul McComiskey and John Clarke. They had to watch a lot of players who were class."

The Saval man would contend that this rapid fall had been a long time coming.

"On the outside looking in, I have had my issues with the county board and thankfully we are on good terms now," he said.

"It's not as if this is a conversion on the road to Damascus, but I would have had a fundamental problem with the way a lot of the senior players, after 2010, were treated. The backroom changed.

"Our team could have weathered the storm, even allowing for the couple of blips in 2011, if a lot of the senior players on the team and panel could have been retained and managed better.

"I felt that they changed the backroom team (of Brian McIver and Paddy Tally) too quickly. Senior players became isolated, including myself. It was nearly as if your time was coming - you were getting into your 30s.

"I think there were players who were on the fringes of the panel who were unlucky not to play, the likes of Ronan Murtagh, Clarke, McComiskey who were allowed to fall away."

Over the summer, Burns appeared to have righted the good ship Down.

After shocking an Armagh team that had been talked up in the lead-in to the game in Newry - their first Championship win over their neighbours since 1992 - they went on to turn the world on its axis and avenge the previous year's record Championship defeat to Monaghan - 19 points in Clones - with an impressive win over Malachy O'Rourke's men in the Ulster semi-final.

However, the run to the final, which they lost heavily to Tyrone, papered over the cracks.

The squad have been hit with a raft of player departures, for a variety of reasons.

They include Gerard McGovern, Joe Murphy, Jerome Johnston, Conor Francis, Niall Madine, Michael Cunningham, Rory Burns and this year Keith Quinn's return from exile in New York ended when he left the panel in March, with Barry O'Hagan heading out the exit door since.

Poland attended the first meeting of the panel, but frustrated by the lack of opportunity and game time in 2017, thought better of committing.

Former joint-manager of Antrim Gearoid Adams was added to the coaching ticket but that hasn't worked out.

The decline of a once-great superpower is nothing new, but Down, unlike Derry, have no recent history of under-age success to console themselves with, and their fundraising wing is still at a developmental stage.

The appointment of Burns as manager has not gone as the county board would have wanted, but such was the protracted process of gaining a manager in the first place, they are not in great credit.

If relegation comes, it will cause food for thought among those tasked with developing Gaelic football in the county, and put the spotlight straight on them.

Belfast Telegraph

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